Monday, June 25, 2012

Pocket Neighborhoods and Older Adults: Re-thinking Housing for Aging Boomers

A recent article from the AARP entitled, Share Common Ground: More Boomers are opting for smaller neighborhoods with a bigger sense of community notes that in their advancing years, more and more boomers are looking for opportunities for close-knit communities which breed close neighbors and common green space.    

As the article observes, “Chances are, you will be hearing more about pocket neighborhoods” and I couldn’t agree more.  So, what is a pocket neighborhood?  Well, according to Ross Chapin, an architect based in the Pacific Northwest who has designed a number of these spaces, “these neighborhoods are clustered groups of neighboring houses or apartments gathered around a shared open space.” Pocket neighborhoods exist as neighborhoods within neighborhoods; central mailboxes give neighbors even more opportunities to interact and shared common space provide for a sense of mutual attachment and responsibility.  As Chapin suggests, “Because of their watchfulness, strangers are taken note of and children are free to play.”  Indeed, these neighborhoods are designed to promote exercise, youth play, and active living in helping to confront and prevent childhood obesity spoken to in a report by the Center on the Study of Social Policy.  CSSP’s Policy for Results Initiative has a policy tool devoted to how policymakers can help support healthy community design and through that promote child health.  Building housing that activates open and walkable space, reflected in development like pocket neighborhoods, is key to this design. 

Pocket homes have smaller backyards with the focus on the front of the house reflected in an expansive front porch.  They prioritize walkability to restaurants and shops.  Again, this enables more active living not just for boomers, but for their children and families which leads to healthier lifestyles.  Parking, on the other hand, is deemphasized through attached garages or parking areas.  The architecture speaks to a renewal of neighborhood life and meaning that brings to mind a 21st century iteration of Mayberry, NC.  
You may be asking yourself the question right now, “Jeff, you are twenty-eight years old, why do you care what those irrepressible Boomers are doing?”  One reason is this phenomenon is not just a Boomer trend.  In fact, the literature shows that this type of housing is attractive for a range of generational and demographic cohorts, including, Singles, Empty-Nester Couples, Families, the ‘Great Generation’, Baby Boomers, Gen-X, and Millennials.  More so, our architecture, our buildings, and how we live in them say something about what we value as a society and where we are going as a nation.  Some among us are finding the extreme private architecture of “gated communities” to be antithetical to how we are wired as social beings.  We are looking for the pendulum to swing back to a place in which there is more of a balance between community, knowing your neighbors, and private space apart from exurban bedroom communities that can be isolating and removed.  In thinking about the connections to policy, a report released in 2010 by AARP’s Public Policy Institute and authored by the Center for Housing Policy speaks to the need for a broader range of housing options to meet the growing needs of adults over fifty.  One specific topic this report touches on is housing for older adults who don’t wish to live in nursing homes.  Pocket Neighborhoods could be developed within this housing framework.  Another more recently released report by the Center for Housing Policy notes providing for flexible zoning models and enhancing consumer choice will further bolster the range of options for older adults.  These reports which advocate for policy on the federal level are connected with the larger older adult and assisted living state policy infrastructure that has seen broad shifts in the last few years.  According to the National Center for Assisted Living’s 2012 edition of “Assisted Living State Regulatory Review,” sixteen states have made changes to assisted living policy in 2011 including the revision of education and training requirements for workers, disclosure of information to consumers, and Medicaid changes.  These shifts in housing policy will increasingly affect more Americans as more Boomers and their families look for housing options as they age.  Generations United recognizes that an intergenerational approach to public policy, including housing and older adult care, is imperative in using resources more wisely and building generational coalitions, rather than divisions.  Children, families, and seniors all have some skin in this game.  Further, for children in the care of their grandparents pocket communities might serve as an opportunity to grow-up with an increased sense of community – with safe places to play and close-knit neighbors.  Generally, these trends are still relatively nascent and so further research would be needed to make more conclusive policy decisions.    

It is significant to remember that, essentially, demography is destiny.  For better or worse, Boomers have dictated the policy and practice of this nation for decades, and even in their so-called twilight years, they will continue to change and shift our society in ways that may be difficult to imagine.  In this way, it seems that the way we live and how we find meaning in this is being re-envisioned and re-thought.  After all, they wouldn’t have it any other way. 

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