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Editorial: Let's Build Age-Friendly Communities

NWA community member, Isaac Stevens, reviews how the lack of affordable and walkable communities impacts elderly residents.

As an advocate for smart growth in Northwest Arkansas, I have lots of conversations with local residents. When talking with retirees, the same themes surface regarding their desired retirement environment. Affordability, low maintenance, convenient amenities, and accessible transportation are often mentioned. Regrettably, a lack of alternatives to driving and the obstacles in our zoning and development codes make finding these aspects difficult, compelling retirees to forsake the hometown communities they have nurtured over decades to find age-friendly living elsewhere.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Our cities can make it possible to build the types of places retirees want to live in without abandoning their local communities. It doesn’t even require newfangled technology or futurist ideals. We just need to acknowledge how the Suburban Experiment has failed and return to the community-based urban form of the Greatest Generation and prior.

Downtown Rogers has only recently returned to the level of walkability and upward growth it once had. Credit: https://rogershistoricalmuseum.pastperfectonline.com/

This isn’t an issue we can afford to dismiss. America is getting older, and quickly. As of the 2020 Census, about 1 in 6 Americans were age 65+, in contrast to 1920 when this proportion was less than 1 in 20. Per an Administration for Community Living study, the 85+ population is projected to more than double from 6.6 million in 2019 to 14.4 million in 2040 (a 118% increase).

Credit: https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/aging%20and%20Disability%20In%20America/2020Profileolderamericans.final_.pdf

According to AARP, the vast majority of people aged 50+ want to remain in their communities as they age. There’s a problem though. Currently, the only homes available for most residents are large homes on large lots, isolated from city amenities by large, suburban developments, often with no transportation access outside of a car. This means that for many seniors, living in the type of home they want will require moving out of their current community. As Rogers resident Julia H. put it,

“The last time I moved, I had few options in the housing market and I ended up getting into a house which is larger than I wanted, needed and can maintain long term. Most of the homes at the time were either on huge lots I didn’t want to have to maintain, or the layout of the home wasn’t suitable for people with mobility issues. I think if there were more communities with small lots and minimal yards to take care of, seniors who are still independent would give up their larger homes.”

The type of community design Julia is describing is also known as “missing middle” housing. It exists between low-density suburbia and mid-to-highrise apartment towers (hence the “middle”) and is largely non-existent in NWA’s existing housing stock (hence the “missing”). It shows up in the forms of townhomes, cottage courts, and multi-use buildings, among others. It also puts the places where people live closer to the places where people work and play.

These are homes that provide an independent place to live without the burden of family-sized property maintenance. Homes that use less land, and therefore are cheaper to develop and cost residents less to buy or rent. Homes that are within walking or biking distance to age-friendly city services like parks, hospitals, and community events. Homes that provide sufficient density for public transit, allowing our elderly to participate in society without the need to drive.

The Borough in Carlton Landing, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Clay Chapman.

When people are able to comfortably walk (or roll) to the nearest pharmacy, library, restaurant, and bus stop, the need for a car diminishes quite quickly. For those who can’t drive, unsafe places to walk or bike make homes feel more like islands. With social isolation on the rise among our elderly, they are the most likely to suffer if we don’t build places designed around people instead of cars. By building intentional, people-oriented environments, we can keep residents connected without forcing them to drive a car.

This doesn’t just mean allowing missing-middle housing, it includes designing intentional streetscapes that allow for people walking, biking, and using public transit to travel safely and efficiently. Some claim that older people won’t ride bikes and dismiss how separated bike paths could be a benefit to the elderly. But in the Netherlands, a world leader in safe bike infrastructure, those aged 65–74 have among the highest rate of bike ridership for adults. Even disabled citizens benefit tremendously from the network, as this X user shared following his trip there.

The benefits of these changes aren’t claimed without evidence. AARP, a nonprofit dedicated to the empowerment of people 50+, is a strong supporter of this type of placemaking. In 2021, they partnered with Congress for the New Urbanism to release A Handbook for Improved Neighborhoods. This 24-page handbook is a thorough guide on the “why” and the “how” of designing vibrant, age-friendly communities. In it, they detail the importance of working on policy reform so our elderly to retire in place with dignity and health. Much of this work consists of simply removing obstacles that have existed as artifacts of the Suburban Experiment.

The biggest obstacle is pretty straightforward. Missing-middle housing types simply aren’t legal to build in most of NWA and the rest of America. Between (deep inhale…) residential parking minimums, setback requirements, maximum density requirements, maximum lot coverage, use restrictions, floor-area-ratio restrictions, outdated fire codes, planning review, environmental review, lengthy public approval processes, and more, it’s a wonder anything gets built at all. But all of these make the planning, approval, and construction process of anything beyond the cookie-cutter suburban home extremely difficult and time-intensive, if not completely impossible, on the majority of the land within NWA’s cities.

Under Bentonville’s future land use plan at time of publication, only the area in maroon would allow for the majority of the missing-middle home types discussed here.

Don’t get me wrong- having guidelines in place for construction is essential. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That said, the current approval systems are often stifling, making it nearly impossible to build the kind or quantity of housing our aging communities need. With resounding evidence demonstrating that building more housing is how you make it more affordable, it’s even more important to let developers get to building better places.

This is a foremost concern in Northwest Arkansas, where it’s no secret that a major housing affordability problem is brewing, forcing our elderly and the working class alike out of the places they call home. The median price of a single-family home in NWA rose 55.3% between 2019 and 2023. Fayetteville emerged as the most competitive small rental market in the US in 2023, resulting in a series of contentious City Council meetings where community members successfully petitioned Council to declare a housing crisis. This only exacerbates the growing number of older households across the US facing housing instability, with more than 11 million 65+ households being housing cost-burdened.

Credit: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-12-07/high-costs-for-housing-and-care-cloud-retirement-for-us-older-adults

We need decisive solutions to address the affordability crisis before even more of our elderly are forced out. While the cities of Northwest Arkansas certainly acknowledge this fact, each city varies on the urgency of change they are apparently willing to accept. Even within the administrations of some cities, city planners (trained professionals whom the city has hired for their expertise in smart city growth) have their recommendations rejected by City Council members, such as the infamous rejection of an affordable housing project for teachers in Bentonville. These types of votes are what push out elderly residents.

Unless our cities begin to consistently vote for housing affordability (which often means simply allowing more housing), we risk becoming a place where only the wealthy can age in place. Let’s not force our cherished neighbors to choose between their community and their independence. By embracing smart growth principles and building communities designed for people, not cars, we can ensure Northwest Arkansas becomes a place where everyone of all ages can thrive.

By: Isaac Stevens