For my latest book, The Stackable Boomer, we asked Larry Beasley — retired chief planner for the City of Vancouver, professor, author of Ecodesign For Cities And Suburbs and global city-planning consultant — this question:
Q: Many middle-income baby boomers are reluctantly moving to a condominium/apartment that’s smaller than the house in the suburbs they’ve left behind. Instead of leafy green streets, they’re surrounded by dense urban environments. What can we do/plan/change/build/invent to make them feel at home?
A: Baby boomer empty nesters with middle incomes moving out of larger suburban homes into some form of multiple housing will not have too much trouble adjusting to a smaller unit with less outdoor private open space. That will be the obvious cost for them in exchange for freeing up equity and lightening up household responsibilities.
But the emotional side may be a little more difficult. In order not to feel that they have been forced into some kind of compromised life choice dulling their golden years, I think they need to feel some excitement that the new life will offer experiences that they had not known about or enjoyed in the past. I think that experience can be delivered by the nature of their new home and by an exciting neighbourhood context of services and facilities and opportunities and convenience and beauty that comes along with the belt-tightening for the household.
For multi-family homebuilders, this means carefully rethinking the typical unit design and building design to accommodate the special needs of older middle-income people. Current units are most often designed either for a wealthy demographic, with lavish bells and whistles, or they are designed for hip young singles who don’t intend to stay too long or have many complex housing needs.
Empty nester couples have a lifetime of treasures, private house-scaled furnishings, dual personal needs, family responsibilities and a very imbedded need to have a “feel of home” in their housing.
Need to rethink
This requires a rethink of: general storage needs; garage arrangements with privacy; security for hobbies and storage; unit layouts to offer getaway nooks; flexible space for visitors that can do double duty for other purposes most of the time; a finishing vocabulary that emphasizes comfort, convenience and full-time occupancy, but not expense; and in many cases even a design aesthetic that is not too challenging to conventional tastes.
The more that flexibility can be built in the better. Boomers are accustomed to revamping their homes as their needs and tastes change, and marketing units with potential for “sweat equity” improvements is important because boomers are mindful of saving money by using their own well-honed skills.
Buildings need great and obvious security because boomers will be away a lot and want to lock up the unit and walk away. Unit privacy needs to be carefully considered because boomers are not accustomed to hearing neighbours or having people look into their private spaces.
There are hundreds of new unit variations that need to be better understood and tested by marketing professionals with this special kind of consumer in mind.
For the community planner, this means a much more thoughtful model for the neighbourhood. This neighbourhood must offer meaningful new kinds of experiences that are interesting and fulfilling for boomers: great community facilities with relevant programming; a diversity of housing options; and quality shopping choices. This new experience has to be good enough and interesting enough that boomers will look forward to it and can brag about it.
The neighbourhood must have walkability, of course, but also efficient arrangements for the use and storage of cars, because most boomers will not easily give up all their cars. It must be universally accessible because age brings mobility challenges. It must offer a safe opportunity for cycling because boomers often see this as great exercise.
It must have “areas of tranquility” for homes where lower noise levels prevail, especially cutting noise related to traffic and sidewalk noise later at night. It must offer many of what sociologists call the “third places,” after home and work, which provide opportunity to meet new people, socialize in public without breaking the bank and volunteer to help others. It must have arrangements for dogs and be dog-friendly.
Placemaking in the neighbourhood has to be effectively achieved because boomers are afraid that the dense city will be anonymous and soulless. Public realm finishes have to be attractive, landscaping has to be lush, and public art and other aesthetic attractions have to be included.
Neighbourhoods have to be so livable and so attractive that boomers fall in love with them. The complete supportive memorable neighbourhood will be the enticement that transforms the drama of downsizing from an embarrassing hassle into a positive adventure.
David Allison works with executive teams in real estate development and other industries to craft the early-stage vision and brand for projects of all kinds. He crystallizes the most interesting version of any story for early stakeholder engagement, internal audiences, regulatory approvals, consultant briefings and investor recruitment. His award-winning work in the real estate sector alone spans decades and continents. His most recent book, The Stackable Boomer, examines the movement of baby boomers to multi-family homes, and includes research results from a 1,000-boomer survey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on LinkedIN