How Baby Boomers Will Shape the Future of Our Cities

The principal of CannonDesign predicts that his generation will be active participants in making our urban environments healthier

CannonDesign‘s plan for Jaypee Sports City features a continuous 10-mile park woven through a dense urban fabric of high- and low-rise developments. This entirely walkable parkland links all the city’s neighborhoods and social amenities. It’s an idea that can improve the life and health of any city, says architect Peter Ellis.

Courtesy CannonDesign

I am an architect, and a designer of cities. I am also among the Boomer generation, the 65-year-plus demographic that, due to our increasing numbers, is creating a giant bubble at the upper end of the population charts.

We are not, however, aging like the generations that preceded us. “We will be able to give many people an extra decade of good health, based on what we are able to do in the lab now,” says Brian Kennedy, President and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California. The primary triggers for most disease can be controlled, enabling people to remain productive well into their eighties, nineties, and beyond.

How will this “revolution” in human longevity impact our cities? Unlike our parents, Boomers have not moved to retirement communities, preferring, rather, to stay as long as they are able in their urban neighborhoods—where they can continue to lead active lives.

The quality of our lives depends, of course, on more than the latest advances in biomedical research. We now understand that our physical environment and our behavior are the root cause of many of our chronic diseases. This growing awareness underlines our demand for sustainable communities, which support an active and healthy lifestyle. My generation wants to remain physically active, and therefore gravitates to walkable neighborhoods with a broad mix of amenities connected by a network of pedestrian and bicycle paths.  

 How will the “revolution” in human longevity impact our cities?

My firm’s design for Jaypee Sports City incorporates many of these strategies. The plan for this entirely new city, located near New Delhi, India, establishes a network of green corridors that weave together high-density blocks of low and tall buildings. These continuous, walkable parks moderate the region’s hot and humid climate, retain monsoon rains, provide potable water, and link all the city’s neighborhoods and social amenities.

Within our existing cities, we are beginning to reclaim the public realm from the automobile, trading asphalt for green streets, parks, and civic space. A city such as Portland, which leads the nation in urban greening, is now beginning to quantify the impact of environmental policies on the health of its citizens.

If the Boomers are to sustain productive lives, our national health-care system also needs a radical transformation. In order to lower medical costs while achieving better outcomes, and to support “aging in place,” it is necessary to decentralize treatment from acute care hospitals to outpatient clinics, as well as community- and home-based care. Working together with the Capital District Health Authority in Halifax, Nova Scotia, we created a plan to shift the city’s centralized health system to neighborhood-centered care. Community health centers tailor wellness programs to individuals, helping them to make better lifestyle choices. Moreover, the health of each district’s population can be monitored in order to identify and manage chronic disease. The design and medical professions are now beginning to understand that the design of the community—its buildings, its infrastructure, it social amenities, its parks—impacts the health of its people well beyond a hospital’s four walls.

We also have to take into account that many of the Boomer generation will not have sufficient retirement savings to secure a comfortable and dignified old age. On the plus side, more of the elderly will remain in the workforce and contribute to our overall economy. This is an opportunity for innovative business models that offer products and services to the Boomer market—more affordable and compassionate homecare, for instance.

 Taken together, the Boomer and Millennial generations generally comprise half the population of a typical city. United, we will be a powerful force for change.

But while we might develop services and amenities that make our communities more vibrant and engaging, many citizens may not be able to participate, due to their health, advanced age, or financial stress. This will place a negative pressure on city revenue, property tax receipts, and cost of health and social services. It will require the very best of our character to overcome this stress on our communities. We will need to address the very structure and responsibilities of our institutions, our neighborhoods, our families, and our part as individuals in a social contract. Many difficult choices will have to be made.

My generation is not alone in our desire for a stimulating urban environment, but are joined by the young Millennials who are moving to our cities in ever greater numbers. In fact, we seek many of the same qualities of urban life. Taken together, the Boomer and Millennial generations generally comprise half the population of a typical city. United, we will be a powerful force for change. Enlightened developers and community leaders recognize that both young professionals and seniors gravitate to multigenerational neighborhoods that promote engagement. This is, in fact, the city at its best, the spice that makes life worth living. I would like to imagine that there will be an ever increasing chorus for profound change to bring our cities closer to Jane Jacobs’s vision of the ideal urban neighborhood. Let us hope that we are active participants not in the “life and death” of our great cities, but in their resurrection.

Peter Ellis, FAIA, leads CannonDesign‘s urban design practice, with projects in Dubai, China, Germany, and the United States.

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