For about half a century, American cities and suburbs were built as car towns – with long stretches of road. And sometimes without sidewalks. But lately, things have been changing. Americans are seeking more intimate city spaces and putting a high premium on good public transportation. Millennials don't seem to want to buy cars, or drive much. In their quest for more walkable cities, they are teaming up with some unlikely allies: Retirees.
As the baby boomer generation ages, more and more of them want to remain at home – and remain independent. A whopping 63 percent of boomers don’t intend to move, according to a recent study from the Demand Institute, a nonprofit think-tank devoted to consumer issues. And the aging population is soaring – a joint project from Harvard University and the AARP predicts that by 2030, there will be 73 million adults over age 65 living in the U.S.
Aging Americans increasingly ask for walkable cities. It's one of their top priorities, according to Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of the AARP. What the AARP wants, it frequently gets. The organization is the eighth-largest lobbying group in the U.S. – its members are consummate voters, and more importantly, LeaMond says, "tend to be participants in the community. They come to community meetings, they're very involved."
The AARP and the World Health Organization have focused on building more livable communities for the aging population through their Age-Friendly Cities and Communities program. Cities can adopt elements of a WHO-approved checklist to make communities safe and engaging for people who are aging. Many places have come a long way toward addressing infrastructure issues and community engagement, according to Tori Goldhammer, a Washington, D.C., occupational therapist who specializes in aging-in-place and fall prevention.
Yet investing in more walkable cities can be relatively affordable.
"There are many places where there's a lot of construction underway, and they're already making changes to the physical environment, and ensuring that it's done in the right way often doesn't add very many costs," LeaMond says.
Even when modifications are pricier, the investment can pay off.
"The more walkable a community is, the more the value of the property is going to be higher, and so there is an incentive for communities to look at this in more than just safety and mobility of its residents," LeaMond says.
To better understand the importance of walkable communities, Lizzie O'Leary took a walk in the Washington, D.C., Eastern Market neighborhood with Goldhammer and a very special guest: her dad, Buck O'Leary.
On their walk they found these five factors that help make a city walkable:
1. Keep sidewalks well-maintained
Sidewalk cracks, uneven bricks and tree roots are tripping hazards, especially when they're wet or icy. That’s one reason personal-injury lawyers exist. Slips and trips happen all the time on uneven sidewalks, according to occupational therapist Goldhammer. “Anything greater than a one-quarter inch in change of height can present a trip risk for anybody,” she says. Updating sidewalks that have undergone ordinary wear and tear would prevent injuries and make it easier to get around.
2. Provide lots of outdoor seating
When you’re out for a stroll, it’s nice to be able have a seat, take a break, relax. Many communities that are participating in the AARP and World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities initiative have made a lot of progress in this area. For instance, the New York City Department of Transportation says 1,500 benches will be installed by 2015 through its CityBench program.
3. Allow enough time at crosswalks
The Beatles may cross the street with a bit of swagger, but for many people it’s not so easy. Crosswalks can become hazardous for people rushing across them and frustrating for drivers waiting for them to clear. “There might be six lanes of traffic and [it takes] 22 seconds to get across the street, and it’s really very difficult,” Goldhammer says.
4. Turn on the lights
In addition to being a major crime deterrent, a lack of sufficient lighting (also known as darkness) makes it more difficult to see those cracks in the sidewalk. Once shrouded in darkness, potential hazards that aren’t a big deal during the day become exponentially riskier.
5. Build plenty of clearly marked bike paths
It's not always this adorable when someone gets side-swiped by a Huffy. Cyclists need their own lanes to ensure they have enough space to ride safely. And in the context of age-friendly cities, bike lanes also keep bikes off sidewalks, making both the roads and the walkways safer for everyone.