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BoomTown: Common Interests Trump Common Ages

Image by Ian Schneider, courtesy of Negative Space

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

“What if we could rethink the housing options for Boomers? What if, instead of old-style retirement communities, we could define something that much better meets the wants and needs of today’s Boomer generation?”

That’s the pitch Laura Latham used to entice me join her in the Building Boomtown Gensler research project. The idea of developing a new vision of community life—a BoomTown that would reflect the independent, health-centered customized lives that Boomers live—appealed to me immediately.

I had recently watched my dad as he moved into a continuing care retirement community. It was not a place I could even remotely visualize myself moving into. Self-contained and segregated, it had only minor connections to the outside world. And this seemed to be the norm for all of the retirement communities I’d seen: self-sufficient fortresses populated exclusively by older people. There must be a better option out there, I thought to myself. So I joined Laura in uncovering a new housing typology for older people.

Our first step was to understand the housing and community options currently available for retiring Boomers, and how they relate to the realities of Boomer lifestyle preferences and current trends in society. As a member of the Baby Boomer generation, I can attest to the fact that we are, and have always been, an oft-discussed and researched generation. This gave Laura and I an overwhelming amount of data to work with, and it wasn’t long before several patterns came to our attention:

  • As a group, Boomers are extremely diverse and not eager to conform to one-size-fits-all solutions.
  • On-demand technology has totally changed service delivery in our lives, and Boomers are, contrary to certain stereotypes, wholeheartedly embracing the conveniences new technology affords us.
  • Retirement may involve continuing to work in some way, but a without occupying a single office for 40 hours a week.
  • Social isolation is very hazardous to your health at any age, especially as you get older.
  • The needs and wants of downsizing, healthy Boomers are not dissimilar to those of Millennials. Many in both generations are looking for smaller, stylish and simplified lifestyle options.
  • Strong communities are built upon relationships between people with common interests and passions.

It was this last point that most resonated with me: the idea that we feel most at home with others who share our passions in life. In terms of creating a support network as one ages, strong social ties are a must. As Laura and I found in the writings of Dr. Bill Thomas and Janice Blanchard, aging in community promotes social capital—a sense of social connectedness and interdependence—enhanced over time through positive interactions and collaboration on shared interests and pursuits.

Relationships between community members tend to be informal, voluntary and reciprocal, and therefore sustainable over time. Crucial to building relationships is an asset-based approach to community development that creates a custom “social architecture” that builds on individual and group gifts, interests and experience, while addressing the challenges and needs of the community and individuals.

There are many examples of interest-based communities where commonalities are part of the social architecture. In three communities in California, for example, there are senior independent living apartment buildings that cater to artists and those who enjoy living in an art-focused environment. On-site facilities include performance theater and art studios, and resident activities include acting and musical performances. In Toronto, there is an urban mixed-use apartment community that revolves around sustainable residential urban farming, good food and social responsibility. Apartments include balconies with micro-garden beds, and there is a greenhouse and commercial kitchen facility. On-site events include demonstrations by farm-to-table chefs.

While these do not have all the aspects of what we hope BoomTown will become, they demonstrate how communities can be successfully structured around people brought together by common interests and passions. That is the basis of a vibrant and sustainable community, rather than one based on the age of the residents. That is exactly the sort of community we seek for BoomTown.

On Sept. 21, industry experts and cross-generational points of view will gather in Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office to build BoomTown—a mixed use, intergenerational, urban community that addresses both the physical and social architecture that will support our wants and needs throughout our lives. And over the next few weeks, we’ll share our thoughts on this new community paradigm and the transformational promise it holds for our individuals of all ages.

Lee Lindahl Lee Lindahl is a consulting strategist in Gensler’s Washington, D.C., office. Contact her at Lee Lindahl @gensler.comlee_lindahl@gensler.com.