Ageless Cities

This post is part of a special series of blogs inspired by NLC’s annual Congress of Cities and related events such as the National Summit on Your City’s Families.

Interestingly enough, much of what we have learned about how to make cities great places for youth can be applied to making cities great places for seniors. Perhaps we ought to start talking in terms of age-neutral cities or, better yet, ageless cities.

Engagement is a central characteristic of ageless cities – a determination to create opportunities for individuals to bring their talents to the community for the benefit of all. For youth, engagement may take the form of a city youth commission. Such a commission can offer clear and focused insights about the priorities that young people want, whether it’s skate parks, sports fields, or community service opportunities.

For older citizens, engagement translates into maintaining social networks and an active lifestyle, perhaps including opportunities for employment. For city officials, this means a policy focus on quality health care and the transportation networks that connect people from place to place who may not be able to drive a car.

Good decisions about how local officials build and maintain ageless cities rely on timely data. In the City of Bellevue, Washington for example, the city-created Network on Aging conducted a local needs assessment. The information was used to coordinate and align the work of city departments to address community needs.

I think it boils down to a decision about what and who the community values. Teens, recent college graduates, young singles, married couples, families, empty nesters and single seniors each bring important contributions to a community. Skill, talent, energy, dedication, and ideas are not a product of chronological age. A city that is inclusive; that seeks contributions from all residents and that delivers benefits to all residents is a thriving and attractive place to live. An ageless city makes room for everyone regardless of where they are in the progression of their lives.

Click here to watch my interview with Kathryn Lawler of the Atlanta Regional Commission at NLC’s Congress of Cities on creating ageless cities.

New Data Show Nearly 1 in 5 Homes Have Some Type of Accessibility Problem

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released the results of the American Housing Survey (AHS). This year’s survey had a core set of questions, as well as supplemental questions regarding home modifications and the needs of occupants living with disabilities. The AHS findings confirm that the existing need for home modifications is enormous.

The AHS data show that 17.9% of homes are occupied by someone who has difficulty using kitchen cabinets, household appliances, and/or accessing and using the bathroom. In addition, 34.8% of homes with someone having accessibility issues are renter-occupied. When a home is owner-occupied, the financial challenges of making home modifications are often the primary obstacle. But when renters have accessibility challenges, meeting those needs brings up even more issues. Questions about renter and landlord rights and responsibilities arise, information about available resources is needed, as is knowledge about municipal ordinances, and identifying experienced and trust-worthy workers can make a difference.

With the aging baby-boomer generation and more than a million veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom have physical disabilities, ensuring the housing needs of these community members are met is critical to enabling them to be as fully engaged as possible. Meeting this need requires cities to engage community stakeholders, particularly since cities need to do more with less in the current fiscal environment.

As reported in NLC’s City Fiscal Conditions, 21% of cities reported decreases in human service spending, and 48% reduced the size of their municipal workforce. By leading the engagement and coordination of stakeholders, city’s can ensure that limited resources are used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

With an increasing number of Americans deciding to rent, thousands of baby-boomers turning 65 each day, and veterans with disabilities returning home, the AHS findings underscore the great and growing need for cities to focus on meeting the home modification needs of residents. To offer insight about what cities can do as these factors come together, NLC held a webinar about these issues as they pertain to veterans. But the lessons discussed can be applied to other parts of a city’s population as well.

Who’s Afraid of Renters?

Perceptions seem to be changing but there remains an unfortunate bias against renters. In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal (May 4, 2012) author Daniel Gross [Better, Stronger, Faster: The Myth of American Decline and the Rise of the New Economy] offers this characterization. “In the American mind, renting has long symbolized striving – striving, that is, well short of achieving.”

Millions of Americans rent; some 34% of them in fact. According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population survey, 42% of renters are under 30 years of age and 17% are over 65. How is it that anyone can lump together so many seniors and Millennials and then suggest that somehow they are not essential elements of the American mainstream that deserve choices in housing?

Renters are transient and disconnected the critics argue. To be sure, renters without children, both young and old, may be disconnected indeed from schools; the one basic hometown institution mostly supported by property taxes. However, from this observation it is a far and dramatic leap to suggest that renters by their very nature are disconnected from the community at large. What models of citizenship are we promoting that equate the value of contributions to a society by the dollars collected through a tax on real property?

Today renters are helping to stabilize and even save neighborhoods devastated by foreclosures just by the act of moving in.  Beyond their physical presence, renters bring income, purchasing power and the foundations of community.

People chose to live in the best place that they can afford.  That best place often has a mix of employment opportunities, welcoming neighbors, and some amenities such as open space or retail shops or entertainment venues.

Being welcoming to new residents regardless of their housing preferences is an act of good faith by a city. By using an inclusive approach, a city can demonstrate that it seeks to attract people of energy and talent to build a life for themselves and for those they hold dear. Such an attitude proudly declares that a community wishes to serve and support a diverse and unique corps of residents.