On Thursday, I attended the Michigan Association of Planning’s (MAP’s) 2012 Spring Institute. The overall theme of the event was planning for an aging society – certainly a timely topic even if many of us prefer to dismiss the fact that time and the calendar are speeding merrily along.
Needless to say, as the baby boom generation has now started reaching retirement age (since 2007), it will mean some monument shifts in our nation – not only in demographics, but also on how many Americans live, work, shop, travel, and play. As a member of the baby boom generation myself, I had already perceived some of the changes that will become necessary to accommodate our aging population. Thursday’s planning conference reinforced those thoughts and added a bunch of new issues to think about.
It is hard to encapsulate all of the presentations from throughout the day, but for me two stood out as particularly poignant and useful:
- The keynote speech by Deborah Howe, FAICP, Ph.D. entitled “Creating Aging-Friendly, Liveable Communities;” and
- The presentation entitled “Designing Accessible Facilities for our Aging Population.”
Handouts included some very detailed and useful studies and report from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Among the numerous factoids learned during Thursday’s presentations were the burgeoning growth in the number of Americans over the age of 50; the huge percentage of retirees who prefer to age in place (approximately 75%), and the need for planners, builders, designers, and architects to adopt practices that accommodate our aging populations. The single most eye-opening tidbit of data cited during the day was every 60 seconds another baby boomer turns 60 years old. I suppose literally, they turn 60 at the same time at the stroke of midnight, unless you are measuring it based on their time of birth, but the point is clear.
I have to admit that prior to this week’s event I was not very familiar with the terms “visitability” or “universal design.” Visitability means the structure is designed or re-designed in such a manner where those who are older can safely access it and visit. One example of making a structure visitable is having at least one level entrance (without stairs or steps). The image in my mind from visitability is that of grandparents being able to come and visit their children and grandchildren without facing a series of obstacles due to structure’s design.
The second term, universal design means structures, particularly homes, should be designed to accommodate and house those who may be less mobile, using a walker, in wheel chairs, or with a permanent disability. Some examples of universal design would be lowered sinks, handles (not knobs) for doors, an elevator or lift, at least one main floor bedroom, and a variety of other options.
One of the best ideas I heard during the day was the concept of designing adaptable buildings/uses. The example noted was to plan/design school buildings so they could easily be converted to senior centers or senior housing as the number of school children shrinks and local population ages. Further along in time, if there were a renewed increase in young people, the building could again be re-adapted to school usage. Given the number of vacant school buildings sitting idle in the Midwest alone, this sounded like a terrific option, albeit perhaps a bit late for some communities.
Additional discussion was spent on the oft-controversial issue of accessory apartments for parents, echo housing, and granny flats. As our population ages, the economic and social advantages of such options will likely increase the pressure on communities to loosen their zoning standards to allow these uses. One community seemed to have taken a fairly logical and simple approach without creating a firestorm of backlash – in their case they simply stated in the zoning code that as long as the outward appearance of the residence remained the same, the inclusion of one accessory apartment within the structure was not prohibited.
MAP’s Spring Institute was very enlightening and useful. While not the only topic of consideration, planners should contemplate the issues impacting and consequences related to an aging society when they are formulating master plans, amending zoning ordinances, considering special use permits, reviewing site plans or building permits, or when thinking and acting strategically.