Walkability isn't just for millennials.

In your town, are there neighborhoods where three generations of a family could reasonably find a place to live, all within walking distance of each other? 
Source:  David D

Source: David D

That's question #7 on the Strong Towns Strength Test and if you scoffed at it the first time you read it thinking "Grandpa doesn't like to walk places," think again.

As a recent article from Curbed explains:

According to a new study by A Place for Mom, a nationwide referral service, the Senior Living Preferences Survey, older Americans value walkable urban centers. The survey asked 1,000 respondents nationwide about their living preferences, and a majority said it was very important or somewhat important to live in a walkable neighborhood.

“It’s time to abandon the idea that only millennials and Generation X care about walkability and the services available in dense urban neighborhoods,” says Charlie Severn, head of marketing at A Place for Mom. “These results show a growing set of senior housing consumers also find these neighborhoods desirable. It’s a trend that should be top of mind among developers.”

Indeed, how often have we heard that walkable compact neighborhoods are merely the purview of middle class, childless millennials who mainly care about it because it saves them money on their Uber rides after a Friday night at the bar? (I'm sorry, was that a little too cynical? As one of those childless millennials, I'm just a bit tired of hearing this bogus claim.) This stereotype is one of the ways that people who don't want to support safer walking (or biking, or new apartments that would put more residents in walk-friendly neighborhoods...) try to shut down this movement. Making Grandma the new face of walkability might help change this misperception and convince a broader population of the need for walkable streets.

The Curbed article also points out that in the A Place for Mom study, "walkability ranked high regardless of income level, especially for those under 70 seeking senior apartments."

Furthermore, not only is walkability of value to people with a wide range of ages and incomes, it's also important to stress here that walkability doesn't even only benefit people who walk. It also means destinations closer together, safer sidewalks, and intersections that are easier to cross—all of which also benefit people who use wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility aids, as well as vision-impaired people.

And yet, many senior housing complexes are still located in suburban areas where driving is a virtual requirement. From the Curbed article:

According to Bill Pettit, President of R.D. Merrill Co., parent company of Merrill Gardens, which develops senior living centers in the Southeast and West Coast, many developers, and society at large, assumed that seniors preferred a more rural or suburban location, due in large part to the fact that developers, looking to create larger campuses, sought out 3-5 acre plots of affordable land far from urban centers. Seniors don’t prefer campus living outside of town centers and urban centers, he says. 

This reminds me of an article we published last year by Joe Cortright entitled "The Myth of Revealed Preference for the Suburbs." In it, he writes:

One of the chief arguments in favor of the suburbs is simply that that is where millions and millions of people actually live. If so many Americans live in suburbs, this must be proof that they actually prefer suburban locations to urban ones. The counterargument, of course, is that people can only choose from among the options presented to them.

The same is true in this case. If we primarily build senior housing on the fringes of our cities, then that's where seniors will "choose" to live. If we, instead, build senior housing next door to other sorts of central city housing, we'll stop leaving our elders stranded in suburbia and create those intergenerational neighborhoods that help build strong towns.

For a further in-depth and nuanced look at senior housing preferences, I highly suggest Daniel Herriges' 2016 article on our site, "Unbundling our Housing Choices."

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