Planning for multi-generational communities

By Ceri Jenkins

Visionary local governments are broadening their focus to ensure that city planning and services meet the needs of residents across generations. By 2040, half our population will be either under 18 or over 65. Currently few cities sufficiently meet residents’ needs across their lifetimes. Provision of transportation services and infrastructure that provides access to citizens of all ages and abilities is a critical part of this planning.

Local governments have begun focusing significant attention on the emerging needs of both the fast-growing aging population and those under the age of 18. A recent Governing conference explored the implications of this demographic shift: this generation of older Americans will work longer, have fewer financial resources, and will be more likely to continue living in their communities than recent generations of aging adults. Young people between 16 and 35 are driving less, not purchasing autos, and choosing transit, biking, or walking instead.

Attendees of the recent Mayors Innovation Project (MIP) meeting in Washington, DC, addressed the critical challenges of making cities livable for all ages. Mildred Warner, of Cornell University, notes in her work on the need for multigenerational planning that, “All generations are linked by the need for safe, walkable communities and adequate public transit.”  She points to many aspects of land use and transportation planning that align with the needs of children and elderly adults, such as fostering healthy living campaigns and walkable communities.  Professor Warner made a strong case for recognizing the economic and social value that families and children bring to cities.

Mayor of Somerville, MA, Joseph Curtatone, noted in his MIP presentation that the high percentage of young adults in Somerville is strongly connected to the excellent public transport access and easy walkability the city offers. Somerville has also made significant progress in promoting active living, prioritizing pedestrian access and bicycling wherever possible, including an extension of a mixed-use community path.  Laura Keyes, of the Atlanta Regional Commission, discussed her region’s efforts to create and foster Lifelong Communities that offer housing, transportation, healthy living, and services for all populations.  The Lifelong Communities Handbook, the product of an extensive and inclusive community process, contains specific service and infrastructure design suggestions for planners and local leaders. The section on Lifelong Mobility and Accessibility has excellent, practical steps for communities to shift their built environments toward mobility for all generations.  Specific examples include adequate pedestrian lighting, improved crosswalks, streets that are easily crossed, and covered bus stops with seating.

A comprehensive list of resources on sustaining multigenerational cities includes a MetLife Foundation report on The Maturing of America. The report found that while 75 percent of communities have sidewalks and street crossings considered safe for older adults, far fewer of these cities have sidewalks that directly link residential areas to needed services.  And a recent study from the UK found that providing free bus passes to adults over age 60 resulted in increases in “active travel” by bike, walking, or via public transit for participants in the program.

Cities face a tremendous challenge in meeting the diverse needs of multiple generations. With comprehensive, inclusive planning efforts, local leaders can ensure that investments in transportation services and infrastructure support the aging population and also benefit young families with children.

Ceri Jenkins is a Senior Associate at the Mayors Innovation Project.