For his 2015 book The Stackable Boomer, David Allison asked me to look at how we can make suburban baby boomers feel at home in a more urban mid- or high-rise dwelling.
As a boomer, one of nearly 10 million Canadians born between 1946 and 1965, I offered my perspective by saying that the world is awash in experts who can define and design great living spaces for people of every age and almost any budget.
What we need is more attention to the spaces in between. That’s where we find community. That’s where we establish safety and livability. Not in cramped condos or spacious penthouses, but in the high streets and local parks – the places where people actually commune.
So, when it comes to housing aging baby boomers, the question should not be about the size of suites or the height of condo towers. Rather, we need to think about communities that are compact and convenient, the kind of places where you can easily push a walker – or a stroller – to the things you need every day.
Density has no merit in its own right. But we need neighbourhoods where there are enough people to support essential services and affordable transit.
This focus will trigger other good decisions. The advantages of proximity will make obvious the benefits of mixed-use buildings and neighbourhoods, where many people can live and work and shop and play. And, as has been demonstrated everywhere from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to Vancouver enclaves such as the West End and Yaletown, if you create a neighbourhood where the automobile is no longer necessary, you quickly find one where it is no longer popular. Streets can be narrower, quieter – safer. And there is more room left for parks.
As boomers have shown throughout their lives, if you design something that works well for them, you find something that works well for everyone. Well-planned communities – where older people can populate the parks and amble the streets in safety and comfort, where seniors can access what they need and enjoy what they want – those communities work equally well for toddlers and young parents, for people with physical disabilities and for youthful overachievers who are sprinting their bicycles between climbing gyms and nightclubs.
Boomers don’t want to leave a legacy of outmoded seniors ghettoes, exclusively designed for infirm octogenarians. They don’t want to be imprisoned in suburbs, from which they can no longer escape when they can no longer drive. They don’t want to be pushed from their homes and separated from their friends and family members.
They want to stay in bright, functional, sustainable, accessible, and enjoyable spaces. Design those places well – and surround them with a rich diversity of community life – and everyone will benefit from the result.
David’s book offers a range of opinions on where and how to house boomers as we move into, through, and well past middle age. The Stackable Boomer is available at davidallisoninc.com.
Gordon Harris is a practicing professional planner in Canada, an international planning consultant, and CEO of SFU Community Trust, the developer of UniverCity, an award-winning low-carbon community on Burnaby Mountain beside the campus of Simon Fraser University.