Aug. 16 2016

"Boomer Cities" Can Work for Everyone

The intersection of aging populations and increased urbanization creates new roles for cities, according to speakers at the New York Times “Cities for Tomorrow” conference held on July 19. Urban planners, architects, policymakers, and researchers, including the Mailman School’s Ruth Finkelstein, tackled tough urban issues at the daylong event, held at the Times Center in Manhattan. Finkelstein, who serves as Associate Director of the Columbia Aging Center, appeared on the “Boomer Cities” panel alongside Richard Rosen, principal at Perkins Eastman, and Times moderator, Big City columnist, Ginia Bellafonte.

Finkelstein began by emphasizing an important priority: reframing thinking about what it means to be older. Though cities must accommodate the changing needs of people as they age, she explained, old age should not be conceptualized as weakness and frailty nor the inability to learn and be productive. “We need to reclaim oldness as experience, wisdom, as being workers, as being teachers, as being activists,” said Finkelstein, assistant professor Health Policy and Management. Communities of color and especially, older communities of color, are often not considered in community design, she stressed. Paraphrasing the words of urbanist Michel Cantal-Dupart from Mindy Fullilove’s recent book, Urban Alchemy, she added, “Us old people, we have a responsibility. We saw all the exclusion; it’s our responsibility to fight it.” 

Older adults who have finished raising children in the suburbs are increasingly moving back into urban centers for greater proximity to the activities they enjoy and the many things cities have to offer, panelist Richard Rosen explained. It is also in the best financial interest of cities to embrace this shift, as older adults don’t have infrastructural needs like top-notch schools.

In cities, where public transportation and the ability to walk from place-to-place offer independence to older adults, urban planners must think about the placement of benches, crosswalks, and the accessibility of buses and trains for people of all ages and abilities. Both speakers emphasized that urban design priorities need to be set through community engagement and an “age-in-everything” lens. Finkelstein, who directed the Age-Friendly NYC initiative, cited Manchester, England, as one example of a city that is doing this right, with a city government that collaborates with older adults on projects from new seating in parks to a campaign to promote safe sex among seniors.

“We need a world that works for all of us—not a parallel world for old people,” Finkelstein said. Naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs) are an intergenerational approach that prevents isolation of older adults and encourages neighborly support that is central to aging well in place. “A lot of things that are good for older adults are good for everyone,” Rosen added. There are opportunities for older and younger adults and students to form creative alliances and learn from one another when they live in close proximity. 

Globally, as people live longer and fertility rates drop, the speakers said we have an opportunity and obligation to rethink community design to better promote socialization, strengthen intergenerational relationships and networks, and ensure the possibility of aging-well in cities.

Watch the full “Boomer Cities” panel.