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Aging gracefully?

This month, my grandma moved into a retirement community. In some respects, it’s a significant change for her. After 95 years living in standalone houses, she will be moving into a small, sunny apartment. To do that, she’s had to downsize significantly – donating furniture, giving away belongings, and simply leaving some things behind. (The cycad that my parents gave her decades ago; the lemon tree that I’ve greedily harvested for years.)

Grandma's new neighbourhood.

Grandma’s new neighbourhood. Wish we built places like this for young people too.

But in other respects it’s not such a big step. She’s not moving far – only from Takapuna to Milford. Because there are retirement apartments sprinkled around Auckland, she is able to downsize and stay in the same community. (As John P’s excellent RCG/Transportblog development tracker highlights, there are many more such developments in the works.) That means that she can maintain all of her social ties and everyday habits – same church, same lunch groups, same healthcare facilities, and same proximity to family.

So I’m not worried about Grandma. But it’s making me wonder what’s in store for my parents, who are now in their early 60s.

They live, as they have done for most of the last two decades, on a large section on the edge of one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s many excellent regional parks. It gives them plenty of space to run a business and pursue their hobbies, like my mom’s wine-making and my dad’s shed Ponzi scheme. (He builds workshop space to house the lumber and tools that he will need to build more sheds.)

But it’s not exactly convenient if you can’t drive. (Or bicycle – they’re now spending more time on electric bikes.) Their house is at the top of a rather steep hill, the sidewalks are pretty patchy, and the nearest stores are three kilometres away. There is no bus service anywhere in the vicinity. Things are very spread out in the California suburbs.

While my parents are fit and vigorous, the fact is that at some point in the next two or three decades, they won’t be able to drive. At that point staying in place will no longer be an option. And if they don’t plan ahead, possibly by moving to a more accessible location before they absolutely need to, it could be a difficult change.

I suspect that they are not the only ones facing this dilemma. Many Baby Boomers will not be able to age in place. The post-war sprawl suburbs where they have spent their adult lives are not suitable for people who can’t drive.

There are three main problems with aging in a typical post-war suburb. Fortunately, all can be corrected or ameliorated – but doing so will require us to do some things differently.

The first is a transport problem: street networks and transport choices. As I highlighted in a post last year, designing neighbourhoods primarily for cars – with a hierarchy of cul-de-sacs, collector roads and arterials – don’t work for other transport modes. You can’t run efficient, usable bus services through these neighbourhoods, and it’s slow to walk anywhere. Furthermore, as shown the following image illustrates, changing that is hard due to the fact that you’d need to re-route street patterns:

Sprawl repair manual subdivision rebuild

A related issue is the quality of sidewalks, crosswalks, and other pedestrian infrastructure. In suburbs where most people drive, these tend to be in poor condition or simply non-existent. I have full use of my legs but still find this exasperating. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for people with limited mobility.

Poor transport choices often coincide with segregated land uses. Because older people tend to be less mobile, regardless of mode, their lives can be better when distances to retail and social destinations are short.

Unfortunately, a second issue that will face aging boomers is that post-war zoning codes have generally mandated rigid separation of residential and commercial use. Houses go in one place; shopping and work goes in another.

Here’s an illustration from Pakuranga and Howick in Auckland’s Unitary Plan. The bright pink areas are “centre” zones that allow both residential and retail. Most of the rest – the cream and orange colours – is exclusively residential. While the cream areas are undoubtedly nice beachfront property, people living in them will face constraints as they grow old.

Unitary Plan Howick

However, this isn’t the only way to build a city. When I was visiting Paris in December, I was struck by the vibrancy of retail options on just about every block in the city. Due to the fact that Paris lacks single-use zoning, it’s possible to get most of life’s daily needs – groceries and company, in particular – met without walking more than 100 metres.

Typical Paris neighbourhood shops (Source: Wikipedia)

Typical Paris neighbourhood shops (Source: Wikipedia)

That leads on to a third issue for aging boomers: a lack of housing choices for young and old people alike. Post-war planning has embraced “exclusionary” zoning policies such as large minimum lot sizes or tight controls on multi-family dwellings. Unless these policies are unwound, they will have two negative impacts for aging boomers who are seeking to age in place:

  1. A lack of neighbourhood density means that local retail and social facilities are not economically viable. Mount Eden, where I live, is a great example of how a mix of housing choices can enable vibrant local retail opportunities. The much-derided 1970s “sausage flats” mean that there is a sufficient critical mass of customers within walking distance. This creates positive spillovers for people living in the suburb’s standalone houses.
  2. A lack of options for downsizing in place will force people to leave their communities as they age. Retirement homes alone are not a solution to this problem, as some people may prefer to move into a smaller dwelling before they need of aged car. A greater mix of apartments, terraced houses, and units are important for filling this gap in the market.

Comprehensively addressing these three challenges will obviously take a long time. The built environment is persistent, and as a result many of the places we built in decades past will continue to look and feel the same for a long while.

However, I would argue that people who are middle-aged today have a strong incentive to vote for change. Retrofitting the suburbs with better transport choices, more housing choices, and more social and economic opportunities will benefit people of all ages. But it is likely to be especially beneficial – and urgent – for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who will soon face some hard choices about where to live. It will offer them the best chance of aging gracefully, rather than facing disruption in old age.

What do you think is important for a happy retirement?

45 comments to Aging gracefully?

  • Early Commuter

    There’s a huge logical fallacy here (perhaps that’s the wrong term, actually)
    For thousands of years, old people “retired” (grew old) in places that lacked road links, that required manual labour, that didn’t provide them with local retail options.
    These places were called farms.

    They survived.

    • nemisis

      If you cannot make a serious comment then do not make one

    • Nick R

      Actually they didn’t. You might want to research the life expectancy of an agricultural worker a thousand years ago, let’s just say they didn’t have to worry about growing old or retirement.

      • harrymc

        You’re right Nick. James Cook made a comment about the wonderful ‘old’ people he encountered in New Zealand. It turns out these ‘old’ people were in their thirties. Most pre-European Maori had a life expectancy of 35 or so: similar to Europe in the middle ages.
        “The average life expectancy for a male child born in the UK between 1276 and 1300 was 31.3 years. In 1998, it is 76. However, by the time the 13th-Century boy had reached 20 he could hope to live to 45, and if he made it to 30 he had a good chance of making it into his fifties.”
        I’m glad I was born in the 20th century.

    • nonsense

      somebody’s talking about me here

  • nemisis

    Excellent post Peter. Why is it that this blog has some of the finest and most creative thinking about our cities ,while those we pay to do this job ( especially council planners ) lack the imagination,brainpower and sheer common sense to get the vision right and then make the rules to suit. Run for mayor Peter and you will have my vote.

    • mfwic

      I have been confused by Auckland Transport ever since they formed. But I finally figured them out. AT is run by Vogons “not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous” as well as being the authors of “the third worst poetry in the universe”. Finally I understand why they do what they do.

    • TheBigWheel

      Why is that aging boomers are the very people holding back this common sense vision from becoming reality? Auckland 2040 and their like. They all vote, and attend meetings, and get their ranting, raving voices across in the media (well they seem to run the media).

      • Greg N

        Possibly because for years and year, what they are their cohorts wanted, was what it seemed the “majority” wanted and were given. In reality it only seemed that way because the groups they associated with also wanted the same things at the same time.

        So they got their way, and now they have their hands on the controls, they assume that everyone else still wants what they wanted/ and will want only what they want now.

        How else can you explain Joyce, Brownlee, Key and cos behaviour over more roads as the answer to everything – because driving was the answer to their desires when they were growing up, so ipso facto, everyone else must want it too.

        Problem is that by the time the aging boomers all realise that they can’t drive anymore, and the bus service/PT, and the footpaths they use to get to them are shit, and the houses they have is too big, hard to upkeep, and are in “the unfashionable western arm of the galaxy”, it will be too late for them all to change.

        So what we have here is a classic example of “failure of imagination” – a failure to believe that the current status quo won’t always be the status quo sometime in the future.

        • nemisis

          Its not a generational thing Greg .Rather its the direct result of boring planners with their colouring pens exercising their limited imaginations with disastrous consequences. I tried back in the 80s to put in a mixed use development on station road papatoetoe which complied with all the rules then current but the planners baulked and refused a resource consent without much legally to back up the decision. The planners knew that most developers would not appeal to the environment court due to costs and delays. As a consequence of gutless planning, instead of having a European inspired terrace development we got more suburbia. That was 30 years ago .The client was a boomer,I was a boomer and so were the planners.
          The planning profession unfortunately is full of conservative ,unimaginative hacks who like to meddle and control. The current UP is a classic example of boring unimaginative planners and urban designers who desire control over something they do not understand.

          • Greg N

            Those same planners made it illegal to live in the Auckland CBD too no doubt.

            That was 30 years ago, but the planning profession (like road engineering too it seems), stick to their overseas born “standards manuals” as much as possible so anything outside those manuals makes them uncomfortable and say no, no, no.

            Except of course when it comes to major changes like deregulating building rules and inspections and/or not requiring the use of treated timber to build houses or believing the assertions of developers and building product suppliers as to their suitability for and/or longevity of use, in NZ conditions.

            But this all leads to a safety in numbers mentality, of if we do what everyone else does, the outcome may be less than ideal for society, but its a safe and assured result for me, my career, my money.

            As a result we get lots of whatever those people thinks works, and we get it in spades and spades, a sort of monocultural (and in some cases, monoclad) housing blight.

          • mfwic

            When was it illegal to live in the CBD? 30 years ago the young lady who became Mrs Mfwic and I heard the Rainbow Warrior bomb from her flat in Parliament St. Did we break the law somehow living in the CBD? The truth is that 30 years ago landowners in the CBD could make more from building offices than from building blocks of flats.

          • Peter H

            ”control over something they do not understand”
            In most European cities it looks normal to freely mix retail with residential, here is example from Delft
            https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Markt_29,_Delft

            Hamilton the District Plan rule is for Central City
            4.3.3 Specific Standards. I) All Residential Accommodation shall be above ground floor level.

        • Angus Robertson

          How else can you explain Joyce, Brownlee, Key and cos behaviour over more roads as the answer to everything…

          We can explain it, because the Labour Party holds the mayoraly of Auckland. Auckland has shoved rents up by 30% whilst gifting property owners 100%+ price increases and made a housing shortfall due for continuance until 2027. The Labour Party in Auckland has shafted young people and low to middle income renters, these are two areas that the National Party and allies are extremely keen to make gains in.

          • Greg N

            What utter rubbish you spout.

            The Mayoralty was only able to be “put under Labour control” once the SuperCity formed in 2010, before then we had 8 mayors of Auckland. But we had a roads first for everything policy from National well before then.
            [And their guy, Banks lost badly to Labours man ‘Len” if you recall].

            Think the Labour Party explains the RoNS? Think again.

            There were and still are a complete National Party (Steven Joyce actually) construction, invented to bypass the normal planning rules and evaluation processes put in place by prior Governments (including Labour lead ones) to reduce the issue of political interference in transport policy.

            And no its not “Auckland” that has shoved up rents by any percentage. It is landlords, who own rental properties in Auckland have put up rents.
            Most of those are Centre and Right party supporters. Most “Left leaning” people seldom have lots of anything to rub together let alone rental properties, for them to rent out to anyone and put the rents up as they please.

            So if you are unhappy with skyrocketing rents and land prices, stop blaming “Len”, the “Labour Party”, and look towards landlords and property speculators.

          • Angus Robertson

            Greg,

            If the landlord shoves the rent up, the tenant can move house and the greedy landlord has a vacant property going broke. Tenants do this in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Wellington, Perth, Hamilton, Tauranga, even Christchurch and indeed almost everywhere in Australasia. A free country means you can move and find somewhere less expensive.

            But not in Auckland, because Len Brown has stopped the new homes from ever being built.

          • Steve Cable

            “But not in Auckland, because Len Brown has stopped the new homes from ever being built.” what reality do you live in Angus? have you been to Hobsonville Point? have you been to Long Bay? these are two development areas they I know of

            but probably more to the point “But not in Auckland, because nimbys have stopped the new homes from ever being built where people want to live.

        • harrymc

          Greg, you should do some research before spouting off. Of the 3 people you mentioned only Brownlee is a so-called “baby boomer.”

          • Greg N

            Suggest you check your facts too Harry.

            Stats NZ says that while there is no hard and fast definition of Baby Boomer in NZ (see here for their version), it is generally accepted as all those born between 1946 and 1965.

            Last time I checked all of those MPs birth dates they were born prior to that date. So they are baby boomers. But you never know politicians lie about so many things so what to believe?

        • MFD

          “So they got their way, and now they have their hands on the controls”

          How do you come to this conclusion? Is it based on their proportion of the enfranchised population? The ages of MPs? Something else?

      • Not all who resist change are boomers and not all boomers (or even most?) want to live is stand alone houses in suburbia (David Seymour is hardly a boomer). The development Ilive in isn’t a retirement village but, as it is only 800m tothe town centre, 600m tothe beach, close to bus links, flat and medium density, many semi retired and retired folk are buying there. And spending significant sums to do so. There are also a few families there. Unfortunately it has become too expensive for most families to buy there (supply and demand? Need more of this kind of development?) The families that live there love it. Also, can we please stop the ‘boomers are to blame for everything’ rhetoric in replies? It’s not helpful in the slightest.

        • Lindsey

          Absolutely, I have been saying this for years. We have built monomorphic suburbs without housing choices, and now there are a lot of people hitting their 70’s who want to stay in their area, but not to rattle around a 4br villa or bungalow. They need townhouses, small apartment blocks etc with good security and close connections. I am a boomer (and a Planner) and I have big Facebook arguments with people who moan about apartment living as if someone is going to come and forcibly move them to the 15th floor somewhere.

        • TheBigWheel

          No, not all boomers, indeed. Not the Dutch ones, not the German ones, nor the Italians or French.. what is it with ours?

      • RB

        Pot and kettle. I love it how anyone who has a different opinion on this blog gets labelled. Lets talk some sense. People throughout the ages who lived on farms were generally healthier and lived longer than those in cities, right throughout the ages. they had better access to quality food, clean air etc. Many elderly spend their retirement years on the farms they grew up on. Ask around, look around. The irrelevant Captain Cook quote was a comparison of one race vs another. One who access to modern medicine of the time and one who didn’t. Maybe, just maybe older people have gathered wisdom over their lifetimes that is often missing in the younger ones who believe they have all the answers and that their view should be foisted on others.

  • Angus Robertson

    Comprehensively addressing these three challenges will obviously take a long time. The built environment is persistent, and as a result many of the places we built in decades past will continue to look and feel the same for a long while.

    Not at all. Transformative growth can happen very quickly when profitable.

  • Bruce

    I agree completely and would love to see more of the mixed use with shops on the ground level and condo style apartments above (5 levels is ideal for most places).
    But……. the car thing is likely to be a non-issue with the driverless car revolution on our doorstep.
    That said, it’s still better for the elderly to be living in the right-sized accommodation for them and ideally in accessible places. You can see why so many want to move to the likes of Tauranga though when they can cash up in Auckland and live a comfortable life down there away from the busy city, of course if there was a passenger train service to Hamilton and Tauranga that would be great!

  • I fooken Love this Blog! Sincere congraduations! and Big respect. Always ahead of the social issues, alwasy informative and always scientific and logical reasoning. You guys really desearve a metal, It has got me through 7 years of bordom in New Zealand reading this every day. Also congradulations for getting public transport (mainly trains) into the thinking of mainstream New Zealanders. Maybe we have not noticed but Auckland has imporved 1000 percent in the last 10 years. The trains are real and getting better, Trams are back and more to come. There is probably a rail to northshore on the cards also.

    Also getting people to realize high rise is not evil. Personally I am leavinng NZ in a week – off to France to live.

    But I think the next generation will grow up into a lot more dynamic Auckland with more rail and more bike lanes. Its not rocket science its just transport its really boring in many ways but this blog give it passion.

  • kelvin

    When I aged, instead of moving out, I would rent out some of my rooms to generate some income.

    Then I use those income to hire a housekeeper/nurse and use uber for transport.

  • Steve Cable

    the other thing at work in sites like that shown in Fig 4-22 is that developers design and develop within a discrete block of land and need to amixmise their return

    they can’t second guess or dictate to the owner of a neighbouring block where any road connections between the two blocks might be, so they tend to leave them out, to the detriment of accessibility, for example, there are two houses on the North Shore that share a back fence, but are 2.5km apart by road, hence the need for structure planning of a wider area

    Peter, it’s great that your grandma remains connected to her community, but the business of old age does tend to ghettoise our elderly

  • Cass

    I think you’ve missed the most obvious technological advancement in transport that’s coming rapidly down the line. Self-drive cars are less than a decade away from mainstream adoption, and some of their earliest uses will be as cheaper options than taxis, which will replace and extend public transport on minor or non existent routes. Buses will become very rare and only exist on major trunk routes, and train stations will become hubs for pickup by self drive cars for the last few km to destination. All these suburbs you think are doomed will be quite liveable by retirees, unless (like my partners 70 year old parents) they are unreasonably terrified of progress.

    • Ignoring technology, simple geometry of space required and conflicts between pedestrians/cyclists and these vehicles, do we really want to pin our hopes on a technology that, would result in:
      * Paving over more of New Zealand by entrenching and extend suburban sprawl
      * Ensuring that we continue to build oversize and less energy efficient houses on ‘cheap’ land
      * Worsening social isolation and social cohesion by entrenching and extending the amount of people living as far away from everyone and everything possible
      * Worsening health outcomes by entrenching and extending the unhealthy lifestyles that sprawl and automotive dependency create
      * Blowing out council budgets by entrenching and extending the need for services to be endlessly extended to low density (ie poor value) areas
      * Allowing people to sit in traffic for an hour arguing on the internet/doing even more work than we already do/watch tv so as to not mind it so much
      * Potentially saving lives once the critical mass is met (what’s the current age of our fleet?)

      I’ll take the self driving cars to get our impatient and dangerous drivers off the road, but they certainly cannot solve our environmental, social and financial issues.

  • Evan James

    Let’s stop blaming the current lot of ministers for Auckland’s housing woes. This government is only just into its third term following Helen Clark’s Labour government, which also was a three term government, and Helen, by the way, was the MP for Mount Albert. Policies take many years to formulate, and even longer to put into practice, so the so-called problems that have manifested themselves in Auckland have probably been a work in progress since the David Lange (MP for Mangere) government. Include Rob Muldoon, and the current PM, and Auckland has been very well represented at the top table.

  • Barney

    I don’t drive now and I would love to shop at my local shops, visit with my local medial practitioners, pharmacists, takeaway foods, churches, maybe visit at the local primary schools or pre-schools but I can’t. Not because I am geriatric but because my local bus services do a huge one way meandering circle around my community meaning that bus access is only one way and you have to hoof on it the other or take the car.

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