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Tuesday
Dec052017

Building BoomTown: Ageless Communities That Are Inclusive and Purpose-Driven

Image © Gensler

This blog is part of a series, BoomTown, examining how we design communities for all ages.

The evidence is undeniable: the growing number of Americans 65 or older is propelling a dramatic reimagining of how and where we age. A recent report from the Massachusetts of Institute of Technology Center for Real Estate estimates that Americans who are 65 or older will total 83.7 million by 2050—a staggering uptick from the 34.9 million recorded by the 2010 census. This accelerated growth will require the planning and construction of many more age-friendly communities than currently exist—and represents a significant opportunity to reconsider the form of those communities as we build them.

These trends are instigating dynamic conversations among designers, planners, real estate professionals and community members about how to create the places we want to live in—places that are inclusive, accommodating and purpose-driven. And I say “we” as a member of the Boomer cohort who is starting to look to the future, and hoping for something better than a retirement home. But what exactly does that future look like? How can our existing paradigm for our communities evolve so that it not only guarantees quality of life but supports the changing lifestyle choices of all Americans, including those over the age of 50?

This is a question we have endeavored to answer with BoomTown, the outcome of an ongoing research project, and our proposal for a new ageless community model. BoomTown not only reinvents the paradigm for senior living spaces but incorporates this new paradigm into existing, thriving neighborhoods. Furthermore, BoomTown challenges the persistent stereotypes about how we age and illustrates that the similarities between various age demographics far outweigh the differences.

As part of our research, we recently held an event at Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office to discuss BoomTown. The gathering of developers and thought leaders in the fields of community planning and healthful aging gave us a forum to share ideas and discuss trends. Over the course of several hours, the gathered crowd held spirited discussions on the problems plaguing the current senior living model and the emerging opportunities for rethinking how communities can use inclusivity in terms of age to incite productive change.

So what is a BoomTown?

As mentioned in our previous blog posts on this subject, we see BoomTown as a complete reimagining of the paradigm for community development, informed by the idea that people of all ages benefit when they live side by side.

Rather than segregate certain age groups in demographically uniform communities, BoomTown places various generations in dynamic, mixed-use settings that leverage aspects of public transit, technology and community support to create healthy, holistic living environments.

BoomTown takes cues from the AARP Livability Index but goes one step further. It uses design and urban planning techniques to produce fully-realized communities, which are not only designed around the needs and lifestyle choices of people of all ages but provide special support to Americans over the age 50. BoomTown recognizes that people are staying active longer, working longer and using all years of their lives to learn new skills and engage in the kind of mentally and physically enriching activities people of all ages enjoy.

Where we go from here

The discussions at our D.C. office yielded many insightful observations about what BoomTown needs to succeed and what aspects of life it must consciously support in order to achieve its stated goal of “ageless living.”

The essential elements of BoomTown:

  • Mixed-use convenience: Provide quick and easy access to retail, transportation, healthcare and nightlife.
  • Tech-enabled service delivery: App-based access to everything from healthcare to everyday services like dry cleaning and grocery delivery.
  • Wellness-focused: The incorporation of community gardens, walking trails, fitness centers and targeted wellness services from acupuncturists and masseuses to counseling.
  • Activity-centered: Co-working spaces, maker spaces, incubator offices promoting small business development and entrepreneurship, flexible spaces for community gatherings and other interests.
  • Design-conscious: The implementation of universal design principles that seamlessly integrate adaptability and ease of use into all aspects of the built environment.
  • Smart development: Leverage the reuse and repurposing of existing building stock to ensure the preservation of existing community aesthetics and foreground the importance of sustainability.

Infusing any community with these ideas will require a conscious focus on coordinating physical, social, policy and community factors. And making these communities affordable and economically feasible will demand creative funding and investment.

But BoomTown represents an essential undertaking. The potential benefits encompass healthier citizens of all ages to the proliferation of communities that better reflect the full spectrum of the human experience. As the aforementioned MIT report makes clear, our society’s demographics are undergoing profound changes. If we continue to champion the current model of community development, future generations will bear the unnecessary costs and unfortunate consequences it too often yields.

It doesn’t have to be this way. By creating communities where people of all ages can live side by side and thrive, we can leverage our collective energies and create a better future for everyone.

Laura Latham, senior associate, brings over 35 years of brand design experience to Gensler. She is an invaluable partner to her clients and seeks to fully understand her clients’ needs to create memorable, strategic design solutions that express their brand, whether it be through print and digital communications and/or the built environment. Laura is currently leading research regarding intergenerational community living with Gensler. Contact her at Laura_Latham @gensler.com.