The City as NORC: It’s the people thing

When The New York Times used my wife and me as examples in a story about retirees’ growing preferences for urban life, it was a chance to literally walk the talk.

I’ve been writing about my Baby Boomer cohort for all my career, first in the ‘60s alternative press, then in newspaper and magazine stories as we aged through what is probably the longest adolescence in world history. The chance we’ll grow up before we die? Even money. But here’s something you can bet on:

The generation that moved markets at every stage of our lives is likely to have something left for a finale. And maybe it’s a walk-off nudge in the direction of neighborhood and community design.

The set-up for the argument is similar to the one I used in this space back in 2012:

By now, just about everybody not invited to our long-running generational fiesta is tired of indulging Boomer fantasies. Sorry. Since we’re still running lots of stuff and still hoarding most of America’s financial assets, there’s more to come.

Currently, we’re in the middle of one of our periodic — and probably our last — reality denial exercises. This is the one where we’re pretending Big Pharma, robots, electric cars and Dr. Oz will extend our playtime into infinity. You know, 60 is the new 40. Unlike previous Boomer reality ducks, however, this one is going to be tough to buy or lie our way out of.

We’re all gonna die. And before we die, we’re likely to slide into various stages of decrepitude and neediness. We’ve had a glimpse of what that looks like with our own parents. We’re next. So the intricate tapestry of denial we’ve been weaving is already fraying around the edges.

It’s not about my generation’s insights or gifts for innovation. So quiet down, you Gen Xers. It’s all about the numbers. As in this familiar reminder in graphic form:

Source: “An Aging Nation: The Older Population in the United States,” U.S. Census Bureau (http://bit.ly/2eHcGsP). Click for larger view.

Source: “An Aging Nation: The Older Population in the United States,” U.S. Census Bureau (http://bit.ly/2eHcGsP). Click for larger view.

If even a sliver of a 78 million-strong set of consumers seems willing to hand over cash for something, businesses organize themselves to deliver, whether we’re talking hula hoops or downtown apartments.

Local governments have been slow to catch on to the opportunity side of demographic projections. Probably because of the “stages of decrepitude and neediness” part of the bargain, they see only an increasing demand for services for those who can’t take care of themselves. Which is an actual thing. But the degree of burden tends to be inversely proportional to existing capacities for providing those services, whether they’re provided by taxpayers or the private sector.

The advantages urbanized areas have in that regard make them Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs, in the graceless language of retirement specialists). The best part about The New York Times piece, besides the chance for my wife and I to get our pictures in the paper, was the context John Wasik, the reporter, offered. Especially by bringing in Chris Leinberger to stitch together the demand side of demography and the supply side of walkable urbanity:

Mr. Leinberger noted that most mainstream retirement developers had traditionally favored suburban or exurban sites that involve sprawling “greenfield” building on relatively cheap farmland. The new approach, by contrast, is for dense, urban or town-centered sites that are accessible for services and socially vibrant.

“The model used to be to isolate old people on cul-de-sacs backing up to a golf course,” Mr. Leinberger said. “The new model just beginning to rise is for walkable urban places.”

Wasik dutifully noted challenges cities face for maxing out their NORC capacities. Among them: The costs for infrastructure and transportation improvements that make neighborhoods more senior friendly; the political headaches of zoning for higher density and more mixed use to supply the shopping and entertainment amenities seniors desire. Then, there’s the price of success when affluent retirees bid up the costs of housing in the most desirable urban neighborhoods, frustrating goals of downtown and close-in affordability.

But here’s what makes those worries less worrisome: Cities that make great places for oldsters to retire are already facing all those challenges in their determination to make cities great places for everybody. They face all that hard stuff independent of the pressures from my generation. (Can we blame Millennials? Aren’t they the ones willing to give up everything but their smartphones to hang out with their buds in coffee shops and craft beer palaces?)

Researchers who follow retiree migration trends are not yet willing to make a big deal about the attractions of city life. First of all, very few retirement-aged folks move in the last phases of their lives until medical or financial issues make “aging in place” too difficult. When they move significant distances in retirement, their first preferences are often small towns and exurbs within a couple hours of a city so they get what they think is the best of both worlds — as long as they’re able to drive everywhere they want to go.

I’ve been in a good position to observe how that works out. Until our move to one of Asheville’s urban neighborhoods, we lived in a rural subdivision three miles from a town of 3,000 and 70 miles from Asheville. Half the county is national forest. Deer, wild turkey and sometimes bears wandered through our yard. Friends from elsewhere envied our seclusion and the slow pace of life.

For two decades, we watched others who made similar choices, first as second home owners, then as year-round residents. They settled into hobby farms in the river valleys or built dream houses on mountain ridges. And for a time, it was exactly as they imagined it would be. No issues driving 30 minutes for groceries or being snowed in for days in the winter. All part of the adventure. But for many of them, even before they aged into their late 60s and beyond, the hassles of living remotely began to seem a worse bargain. There were more trips to Asheville and Atlanta for city fixes and longer vacations elsewhere. Plus a lot more griping about driving everywhere, especially on mountain roads in crummy weather. If they stayed into stages of their lives when they were more dependent on others, many began planning another move to be closer to friends, family and better medical services in metro areas.

As demographic trends work their way through the ways we organize communities, we’re going to be hearing more about the flip side of affluent retiree migration to cities. Dealing with the disruptive investment of seniors’ wealth in urban areas is way better than dealing with their disinvestment in rural regions and distant ‘burbs. When the Times piece was passed among some of the folks in our old rural community, some let us know that they saw our choice as contributing to an unwelcome trend, reminding us how much we’d miss a vital connection to the mountains and rivers that dominate the landscape.

True. But every important choice implies a trade-off. And my instincts and experience as a lifelong Boomer apologist suggest my wife and I are again surfing the wave of demography.

Ben Brown

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