Category Archives: urbanization

Aging in Suburbia-Anew

densityBaby Boomers who want to Age in Suburbia might find a new way to do so:  they will be able to cut back on their driving, but still be near the center of their favorite neighborhood and stores. The new paradigm is called suburban density. Builders of shopping centers, office parks and malls are learning to blend. Their new building sites will co-mingle apartments (or condos), office buildings, and retail centers.  The design is borrowed from the cities, but customized for open spaces.  One of the key design elements is to circle these new dense suburban centers with better connections for pedestrians and bicyclists.

An example of “suburban density” comes from a development underway in a suburb of Indianapolis, called Keystone.  According to the Wall St. Journal, the developer plans a 198 unit luxury apartment building, next to an existing shopping center. Across the street is an (existing) upscale mall. The three properties will be connected by wider sidewalks, and with an intention to add a one-mile long trail that will loop around an adjacent lake.

It is not that suburban density has not been tried before- but it seemed to begin with the car at its center. So, the linkages between buildings depended upon driving from place to place, even if they were just ¼ of a mile, or less distance apart.  Older suburbs like Silver Spring, Maryland and Stamford, Connecticut come to mind. Zoning played a big role in the transportation problems- if the office building was isolated from home, and home was isolated from the shops, then there was not much reason to walk. It was easier to get in the car and drive….even if the destination was across the street.  In the newer paradigm, the priority is supposed to favor pedestrians and non-motorized transportation.

So, putting an apartment building in the center and densifying the suburbs is both an old, and new, concept.  It cannot come too soon for traditional suburbs, which are seeing the erosion of their commercial base and failing shopping malls. It is  estimated that that 20 enclosed malls have been shuttered over the last few years and there are another 60 on the endangered list.  A book called Retail Revolution: Will your Brick and Mortar Store Survive? posits that e-commerce is taking its bite and expenditures by middle-income shoppers are declining.

What may be overlooked in the declining sales numbers is that many of the middle-income shoppers are also Baby Boomers. Boomers are buying more online, contributing to e-commerce growth. At the same time, they are cutting back overall expenditures, because their families are grown and they have fewer, pressing purchases to make. Meanwhile, they need to save for retirement.

The retail community can hope that if the Boomers choose to move into these new style suburban apartments two trends will co-occur: First, Boomers will spend more of their leisure time, making purchases in the stores, restaurants, and entertainment centers. Also, some of the Boomers might hang on to jobs, and extend their working years by relocating near the office-park.  It all remains to be seen, but a denser suburbia is a glimmer of change that might not attract traffic (too much). It could advance a new place for Aging in Suburbia.

Housing Mismatch

etsyDateline Boston:  Home sweet home is getting pricey at both ends of the age spectrum. Young adults and their aging parents are engaged in an escalating and increasingly expensive struggle for….an affordable place to live. The first wave of a housing-mismatch is taking place in Boston, Mass., in San Francisco, Ca., and other metropolitan areas that team with affluent and young tech workers. Boomers live further out, in homes that are too big and need to downsize. Millennials are choosing to live closer-in, and prefer residences that require less upkeep. Neither group (Millennials or Boomers) can find alternatives that are affordable, per Boston Globe writer Deidre Fernandez.

A housing study, completed at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, notes a housing market out-of-synch with its buyers. Millennials are finding it difficult to live where they work and play, and they are also strapped by high rents. It is difficult for them to save for future homes, since 1/3 of their income, sometimes more, is committed to paying the monthly rent.

The research study shows that between 2000 and 2010 Boston, Mass. (Suffolk County) experienced a 10.2% percentage- change growth in population ages 20 to 34, while the further-out suburbs experienced losses. Plymouth Mass., for example, had a 8.9% percentage change loss in younger residents. Over the same time period, average rentals went from an asking price of $1,462 in 2000 to $1,696 in 2010, and in 2014 they escalated to $1,957.

Meanwhile, lower income people are being pushed out further, presumably into the suburbs. Traditional triple-decker homes, a staple of Massachusetts domiciles, were once the province of working class families. Today, Millennials are choosing to live here, as these 3-plex homes are closer-in, near transit, and can accommodate several roommates.

So, the Millennials are moving towards the city- in this case Boston- while the population in the suburbs are getting older and poorer.

This is not promising news for Baby Boomers. If they have intended to unload their home in Massachusetts suburbs like Plymouth or Weymoth and move closer to the city, they will lack for affluent and eager buyers, Although their homes have appreciated, the appreciation may be less than they counted on for a comfortable retirement.

On the other hand, if they decide to age-in-place, their familiar neighborhood may take on a new character. The residents will likely be new immigrant groups, hourly workers who have migrated from the city, and other older people, like themselves. Over time, the tax base will erode- the one that has supported the good libraries, the quality public schools, and other public services. Unless the real estate values continue to appreciate and the fully employed move back, the tax base will not grow.

And, finally– there is the transportation. Always the transportation. With an older population that does not commute on a daily basis, public transportation, always a scarce resource, will be directed towards workers in other locales. Although the Boomers who age-in-place do not place a high priority on public transportation, there will be long drives to shop, to visit, and go to the doctor’s office. The suburban landscape has always been spread out, but it is become more so as malls close, and entertainment and shopping move to the Internet.

Boomers that age-in-place will continue to have their large homes, while a younger generation seeks something smaller, more connected, and most of all, closer-in. The Baby Boomers are a car-centric cohort that have built their lifestyles around automobiles. The Millennials, whether they live in Boston or San Francisco are Digital Natives, and are finding other ways to express their freedom, individuality, and (ahum) drive.

Aging and Driving

aging and transportation ...a new partner, the Smartphone
aging and transportation …a new partner, the Smartphone

Aging and driving will not go well for the Baby Boomers unless they are prepared to learn some new Smartphone lessons.

A recent study looks at how technology helps people get around a city without a car. It turns out that a Smartphone is the entry point. Would-be travelers can access services like real-time transit information, ride-hailing, virtual ticketing, multi-modal trip-planning apps, and bike-share…using their phones.

The travel report about Smartphones was written in 2012 and 2013 by the Frontier Group and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)*. They rated 70 cities on the availability of technology-assisted transportation. Austin, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., were ranked as the top three cities. The rankings depended on two criteria: the number of transportation service providers and the number of services available.

This ranking may seem esoteric to those who are car-dependent, but services like Lyft and Uber, car sharing, and real-time bus information are literally “fueled” by technology and Smartphones. For users, they bring entirely new options and expand the availability of transportation choices.

The youngest generation, known as Digital Natives, turn to their phones first when they want to travel. In urban areas, Smartphones help them optimize the route and the travel mode. Meanwhile, they can continue to text or work once they start the trip, assuming they are not a solo driver.

Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are slow to the game and still sitting, solo in their cars often fuming at the traffic. Boomers surely use Google maps to navigate or Nextbus, if they use transit, but few of them delve deeper into their transportation apps. The average Boomer household owns close to two cars, and has little need for alternatives. Yet.

Meanwhile, transportation providers that service older people, like Dial-A-Ride and medical vans, operate completely outside of the mobile app/Smartphone range. There is little attention to how these services can reach the suburbs. As the Frontier report notes, “(governments) .., have not begun to tap into areas beyond the major cities in which they have taken root, surmount economic and other barriers to the use of those alternatives, and explore the potential uses of Internet and mobile communications technologies in expanding access to high-quality public transportation in areas that currently do not have the population density to sustain such service.

Travel in the suburbs continues to reflect the infrastructure and investment of an earlier time before digital communications. The investment in roads and cars suited a country in which Detroit reigned, and one in eight jobs was in automotives. As technology moves forward, there are newer ways to expand our transportation network, without building new roads.

And these new ways will be ever-important (or Uber important), if Baby Boomers wish to age-in-place.

*News story:


Aging Boomers, At Home

80scarWhen the Baby Boomers were the same age as the average Millennial (mid- twenties to thirties) their desire to be homeowners propelled  the housing market. The lack of housing inventory,  a recession in the 1980’s, and  double-digit interest rates did not deter the Boomers from house buying. They bought homes in spite of these circumstances.

Today, it’s quite different. Although the U.S. population has  about the same numbers of Boomers (75.2 million) as Millenials (74.7 million) the Millennial stance on housing is remarkably different. First time buyers dropped to a low not seen since 1987…a point at which many Boomers had already opted into the housing market. (data: National Association of Realtors).

Furthermore, U.S. homeownership rate has fallen to 64.4 percent, the lowest in almost two decades. However, the rate among people age 65 or older is aroundt 80 percent.

There are a couple of things that could explain the differences between Boomers and Millenials.

(1) The obvious is the level of indebtness among Millenials, as they struggle to find jobs and pay off tuition loans. Boomers  were relatively debt-free as young people (but not as older ones).

(2) Less obvious are demographic changes. Millenials are staying single longer if they marry at all, and plan to have smaller families. Boomers were far more likely to marry and start a family, although about 50% of these marriages later failed. (Chapter One and Two, Aging in Suburbia).

(3) Even less obvious are the social changes. Home is no longer where you spend your weekends (think D.I.Y) and backyard barbecues. Homes need to “do less” and be less entertaining when our phones and Internet are new gateways.  (If this seems hard to grasp, read Chapter Seven, a stand-alone chapter) in Aging in Suburbia .



Aging in Suburbia- Rethinking Home Delivery

homedelivery“7-11” convenience stores have always been favored for quick snacks, slurpies, and cigarettes. They have also been tested and used as “pick up” centers. The “pick up” centers are for packages and goods ordered online. Sometimes it is too costly to deliver things to someone’s door, because they live in a remote area. Sometimes it is not safe, because the package gets stolen from the doorstep. And, sometimes it is not just not feasible, because the package, say of fresh lobster or fresh flowers, spoils without refrigeration.

United Parcel Service is getting back into this “pick up” business. They plan to pre-arrange package drop-offs for their customers at dry cleaners, convenience stores, and pharmacies. Called “Access Point,” it is rolling out in urban areas for now, but would conceivably be extended to its 4,400 UPS stores nationwide.

This is good news, and not-so-good news for older people who will be aging in their suburban homes. On the one hand, the business of ordering online will only grow, and everything can come to them. On the other hand, not everything will come to the doorstep.  For the time being  this is an urban trend, not one reaching into the suburbs, with greater driving distances.



The $68,000 question

Tube map of London undergroundAccording to a 2014 study by the Nationwide Building Society in the U.K., home buyers will pay a ten percent premium for a property that is close to a tube (subway), railway, or tram station. In London, that meant there was a 42,000 pound premium- in US dollars, that is more than $68,000. A secondary factor was the length of time it took to commute into central London. Not all proximate stations are created equal, in other words.

The study was conducted in London, Manchester, and Glasgow. The  home premiums were significantly lower in Manchester and Glasgow, but still underscore that there is a H+T balance (somewhere) and that it is significant to “mind the gap”.

Downsizing- Baby Boomers



According to a poll taken in 2012, more than 40% of Americans ages 50 to 64 plan to move within the next five years or so. This study is reported done  by the Demand Institute, which is jointly operated by the Conference Board and Nielsen Co. These numbers are interesting, since typical AARP polls indicadte 3 out of 4 people say that they plan-to-age-in-place.  One of the key reasons to move is the realization that the house is too big, and the McMansion is passe.

But, whatever the numbers,  the problem is that the McMansion is filled with boxes, pictures, memories. Taking apart that stuff is emotionally painful. For Boomers, the decision to downsize is not only a financial one, but also one of coming to terms with the accumulation of a lifetime.  De-evolving the McMansion is going to be a national sell-off…of both homes and what is in them.

Boomer vs. Millennial @Home

millennial homes

Where would this sweet young couple, a Millennial buyer, prefer to live? According to realtors interviewed by the SF Chronicle (6/22/14)- it would would not be in the homes of Baby Boomers. “When Baby Boomers looked for a home many dreamed of a white picket fence and asafecommunity to raise a family.” The Millennials? They dream of a home that is move in ready, no  fixers; low maintenance, no green grass; location, location- near public transportation , shops, and proximity to work. With the exception of proximity to work (assuming they retired), it is not clear that the CURRENT preferences of the aging Boomers are all that different.

Headline Reversal

Figure 2 City and Suburb Growth Reversals

source: Brookings Institution/William Frey/May, 2014

Navigating through  a headline!

Goosing the housing recovery? A Wall St. Journal story with a big headline  and an even bigger arial picture of a housing development observed  that pronouned “Suburbs Regain their Appeal”.

The numbers in the story are not compelling; overall cities are still growing slightly faster that the suburbs- and suburbs grew at a rate of .96%, roughly on par with the .95% growth a year earlier. Not much change.

Bloggers were quick to note that the definition of suburb is key- after all, infill and higher density are taking place- particularly if the suburbs are near mass transportation.  The validity is questioned by “Bacon” the blogger.

Why not go to the source though. Note census data compiled by William Frey at the Brookings Inst itiute. The suburban growth is flat and the cities are recovering the ground they lost over the last 30 years as the Baby Boomers fled the cities.

Back to the Garden



It is hard to ignore the lead real-estate stories in the Wall St. Journal  (5/7/2014).

The first story, p.1 , finds that in Cleveland and other cities there is high demand for inner-city apartments. Office spaces are being converted into apartments to meet the new demand.

Developers Turn Former Office Buildings Into High-End Apartments –

The second story, p. c1, is that there is a real-estate slump in Hong Kong. New complexes are not seeing the buyers (but the prices, at US$2,500 a square foot) might be a deterrent.

But, the real story, p. c10, brings the two stories together. In  Hong Kong buyers are showing a preference  for vintage apartments, built from say  1960 to 1980. These units do not look as pretty on the outside, but they have more space and better layouts. People don’t seem to care if their residence lacks a clubhouse or a gym.

So, what does that have to do with Cleveland and the surge in apartments  there?  As younger people move out of the suburbs and discover more urban settings, they take with them an affinity for more eclectic spaces, openness, charm, and some garden greenery.