Designing with Colorado’s Aging Population in Mind

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tokyo subway
A universal design/accessibility graphic was built into the textiles of the accessible seats on the subway in Tokyo.

BUILDING DIALOGUE: Creative Content

The future of Denver not only promises transitions in urban development and infrastructure, but a massive shift in demographics. By 2040, the Colorado State Demography Office predicts that almost one out of every five Denverites will fall in the age range of 65 and above. Statewide, the statistics are even more dramatic. According to a recent article in the Denver Post, “From 2010 and 2025 the annual number of retirees is expected to increase by 74 percent compared with only a 27 percent increase in the labor force over the same time period. By 2030, the state’s senior population is projected to increase by 508,000, or 68 percent, over today’s levels.”

beth mosenthal
Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Associate, Anderson Mason Dale Architects

You might be expecting me to follow suit by asking the question: What impact does this demographic shift have on the design industry? I would like to counter, however, with a more exciting question: How can principles extracted from design for the aging enhance and inform new construction and urban design? 

There are many important corollaries between design for the aging and good design practice. Here are two holistic benefits of designing for an aging population that could potentially have a powerful, long-lasting impact on Denver’s new architectural and urban projects:

• A push toward housing solutions that allow people to age-in-place helps stabilize and diversify communities by facilitating mixed generations while maximizing older adults’ ability to contribute to their community.

According to a PEW research study, as of August 2016, a record 60.6 million Americans live in multigenerational households, despite a favorable economy and the last recession still comfortably in the rearview mirror. Designing residences to accommodate aging in place supports multigenerational households and mixed-generation neighborhoods, both of which help maximize opportunities for older adults to contribute to the community while being able to care for themselves.

According to the AARP’s “Aging in Place Toolkit,” mixed-generation neighborhoods facilitate the notion that “There are valuable links to be made between the needs and skills of different age groups. Young mothers often need child care while older adults need transportation to the doctor or store. Teenagers need after-school employment while older adults need help with small chores around the house.”

Another byproduct of design for the aging is the notion that one must approach a design solution so that it is inherently more livable and accessible. Regardless of age or stage of life, design features such as single-floor living, building entries and shower/bath floors without steps or curbs, shelving and storage solutions within arm’s reach of seated height, and a strong indoor/outdoor connection provide people of all ages and physical abilities with a more seamless manner of living in a home environment.

• An emphasis on designing and planning new buildings and city services with inclusive design principles allows everyone, regardless of age and ability, to navigate their city and obtain resources more seamlessly and enjoyably.

On a larger scale, anticipating the necessity of being able to navigate a city with ease at any age and life stage informs design solutions that speak to connection rather than isolation, and ease rather than obstacles.

An example that illustrates this dates back to my childhood. Growing up in the suburbs of upstate New York, I still vividly remember when my mother explained to me that a dear family friend had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As time passed, our friend was transitioned from walking to the use of a wheelchair. An active physician with a brilliant mind, he quickly made the decision to move his family to New York City – where a seamless network of sidewalks, high-rise buildings equipped with multiple elevators, an extensive network of accessible, public transportation options, and a diverse offering of street-level retail, the urban environment enabled him to navigate his surroundings and accomplish his day-to-day tasks more efficiently and enjoyably than had he stayed in a heavily car-dependent, suburban environment.

While Denver continues to implement and explore enhanced public transportation options, the mayor recently cited that 73 percent of Denverites still commute to and from work alone in a personal vehicle. How might urban designers and architects continue to create transportation options and pedestrian-friendly environments in which people of any age or physical condition might be able to walk or wheel themselves easily and quickly from their home to places that provide industry, food, health care, culture, access to nature and entertainment/connection?

The immediate answer is to continue to explore urban design solutions and neighborhood development that encourages walkability, proximity to public transportation, and the inclusion of mixed-use retail and services provided within close range of heavily residential areas. Many people might recall a relative or acquaintance who lived in a city such as New York or Chicago and was able to live in his apartment for the majority of his lifetime.

Despite the ability of Western cities with available land space to continue to develop in a manner that promotes urban sprawl, improvements such as the addition of sidewalks and bike lanes to Brighton Boulevard, more lightrail stops, and more neighborhoods implementing mixed-use residential with some form of retail on the first level indicates a desire to create a stronger connection between residential areas and a central urban core. How we continue to drive pedestrian-oriented and inclusive design features in our public realm remains critical aspects of Denver’s long-term success as a growing, urbanizing city.

In conclusion, understanding that Denver’s only constant is change, and that the city’s shifting demographics will be a huge catalyst that will impact the city’s economic and built landscape, how might the design and development community approach projects proactively rather than reactively? I encourage everyone in the A&D industry to take this question to heart, and to address it thoughtfully as it relates to their own work and lives.

Published in the March 2018 issue of Building Dialogue.

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