Can Boomers Save the Suburbs?

A Salon article titled ‘How to Solve the Boomer Retirement Crisis’ is making the rounds today. The article puts forward a number of policy measures to encourage baby boomers, as they retire, age, and downsize homes, to move to the city, rather than staying in the suburbs (or moving further out or further south). At the end of the piece, the author concedes that none of the measures to encourage greater urban migration for seniors have worked to date. Citing a study of government incentives to do so:

These financial incentives have “no credible effect.” After 40 years, seniors’ migration patterns still lead straight to the same things: sunshine and fairways. “New York to Florida is huge,” says Conway. “It dominates everything else.”

I think the idea of encouraging seniors to move (back) to the city is a good one, but not if it’s solely considered in isolation. In other words, we need to support policies and initiatives that encourage people of all ages and at all stages of their life to move to the city. In particular, this means housing types amenable to families, so you don’t end up with a city of “newlyweds and nearly deads”, as people are often fond of saying about Victoria, British Columbia.

Biking
The suburban environment I grew up in (within Edmonton, and darn near south-central given how far out we’ve expanded).

I believe there’s also a key psychological and behaviour influence that’s being overlooked. Many seniors are going to want to stay in communities they know and are comfortable with, which is a large part of what’s behind the concept of aging in place. While that deals specifically with a senior living in his/her own home as long as possible, that familiarity extends to the neighborhood level. Intuitively, it makes sense. If one’s friends, doctors, and familiar shops and places are in an area, what would make them want to relocate within a given region?

An additional consideration is this – often overlooked when talking about suburban migration is the fact that jobs – not just people – have moved out there. Many baby boomers have rarely, if ever, held a job in a downtown office, or lived in the city center since their 20s. Downtown and the city center for them is a destination – somewhere you go to occasionally shop or enjoy amenities, not a community.

I see opportunities with boomers who have a connection to the city (and its urban core) with regards to downsizing (for example, those who have worked and spent a lot of time there), but for the vast majority, I see this: an opportunity to densify the suburbs, and have boomers help lead the charge in making them more amenable to an aging population. The fact that the services they will need, such as increased transit and walkable amenities, will benefit everyone, is a bonus.

Many of the same policies that will encourage people my age to live and stay in the city will encourage a densification and urbanization of suburban environments for people like my parents, who may be more comfortable out there. Century Park in my hometown of Edmonton – a residential/business community being built on the site of a demolished shopping mall – is an example of what can be done.

South LRT Grand Opening
The LRT station and transit terminal at Century Park. Photo by Mastermaq, using a CC BY-SA 2.0 License.

With the wave of baby boomers starting to hit retirement age, and downsizing in greater numbers, we have an opportunity to increase the sustainability of the city, but more so the suburbs. I think we’d be better off focusing on that, rather than trying to shift their patterns and desires as to which part of region they might want to live in.

In the meantime, while we also help mine and my friends’ parents age in their communities, let’s enact policies to make sure me and my friends can spend our entire lives in the city – by ensuring housing of all types is available and attainable.

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One Response

  1. Another important factor- Cities are not liveable for seniors in many ways- they demand faster response time, alertness, they are stressful to be in, noisy, fast moving. In asking seniors to go urban, we think about the efficiency of the system, but not about the quality of life cities can offer to those who want to slow down after a lifetime of hard work!

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