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Why We Need to Get Boomers to Move to the Cities

If boomer retirees keep flooding suburbs, the cost of providing for them soars. Here's how we could get them to cities instead.

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Giving older residents a buffer against these economic forces is key. Housing projects for seniors (that don’t feel like gulags) have actually been on the rise over the past 10 years. The new architecture emphasizes mixed-use developments and touches that feel like home: things like window sills sized for residents to lean on and look out of, like they used to do in the old neighborhood. Stoves in Chinatown housing have range hoods for smoky stir-frying. Security stations are positioned in a way that lets residents interact with the young guards. There’s also been a push nationwide to change zoning codes to legalize “granny flats,” helping older residents to stay in their homes while renting out the main part of the house to a young family.

Despite these efforts, using government to get old people to move to cities is still an uphill battle. “Older people keep moving to the same places, no matter how much policies change,” says Conway. She and Jonathan Rork of Reed College just  published a groundbreaking study examining the effects of the myriad tax breaks states use to try to woo retirees. Their conclusion? These financial incentives have “no credible effect.” After 40 years, seniors’ migration patterns still lead straight to the same things: sunshine and fairways. “New York to Florida is huge,” says Conway. “It dominates everything else.”

It means cities must do the work themselves to become attractive to seniors. And they should, because older people have more to offer cities than just their pensions: “Tutoring kids, neighborhood watch programs, and just the institutional memory they provide,” says Gleckman. “One of the things we’ve lost in this country is intergenerational relationships.” Though we can’t always spell out exactly why, we sense these relationships are important. New York even awards an annual “Living Landmarks” honor to older New Yorkers without whom the city wouldn’t be the same. (“Now they can’t tear me down,” said Jerry Orbach upon receiving his.)

“Cities need old buildings,” Jane Jacobs famously wrote in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”  “Chain stores, chain restaurants, and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops … studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies … these go into old buildings.” Her point was that what serves a purpose in cities isn’t always readily apparent. Cities need the giddy energy of youthful upstarts and the stability of middle-aged workers and parents. But just as as we’re surprised to learn that they sometimes need a McDonald’s, we find that they need old people, too.

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