Press | April 1, 2014

Designing for a Lifetime: In New York and Other US Cities

Architectural Design

By Christine Hunter and Jerry Maltz


In the next 30 years, the number of senior citizens in the US will increase to become larger than any other single age group. How are cities starting to prepare for this huge expansion in the numbers of over-65s?


Jerry Maltz and Christine Hunter of the Design for Aging Committee of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AlANY) aided by Eric Cohen and Susan Wright, describe how New York and other US cities are laying the necessary groundwork through the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities programme, while also setting up innovative centres for senior citizens, making much-needed modifications to the physical environment and developing new approaches to affordable housing.


Today US citizens are turning 65 at the rate of one every eight seconds¹, creating an oncoming ‘silver tsunami’. Those in the baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, have always constituted a population bulge, and over the next three decades the number of senior citizens will increase more rapidly than any other age group,² reversing the traditional pattern in which they are outnumbered by younger adults and children. US cities are starting to implement innovative approaches to accommodate this demographic shift.


In New York City, the senior population aged 65 and older is now more than 993,000,3 a number projected to rise to over 1.3 million by 2030. At 80.6 years, life expectancy is higher in New York than in the rest of the US, which means that the city will soon have not just more senior residents, but older ones, with many more living into their 80s and 90s.


A majority of seniors prefer not to move as they age and retire, but to ‘age in place’, remaining in the same home and/or community in which they have lived their adult lives. Evolving US healthcare policy also increasingly favours outpatient management of chronic conditions, so that long-term nursing homes are becoming less of an option even for the very frail. Because of the proximity of services, availability of public transit and pedestrian-friendly streets, urban environments accommodate aging in place more optimally than less densely populated communities. But there are challenges as well, and modifications must be made to allow older residents to remain both safe and independent.


In 2010 New York became the first American city in the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities. Criteria for ‘age-friendliness’ have been developed by the WHO to guide cities that ‘wish to qualify for the Global Network. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), an established senior advocacy organisation, works with local officials and partner organisations in the US to identify communities and guide them through the implementation and assessment process. At present there are eight US cities and four counties in the AARP Network in addition to New York. The Age-Friendly Network targets improvements in eight domains of liveability that influence the health and quality of life of older adults: outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; and community support and health services.



Age-Friendly Districts in New York City

To spur compliance in these domains, New York has established an Age-Friendly NYC Commission with representatives from elected officials, government agencies, and private and non-profit organisations. It focuses on urban planning, modification of the built environment, and provision of social and medical services.


So far the commission has established four Age-Friendly Districts throughout the city’s five boroughs. Staff members work with local civic groups and businesses to raise awareness and implement specific practices: shops provide seating areas, allow the use of their toilets, and utilise large-font signage; restaurants provide large-type menus; libraries and museums develop programmes including book lectures and tours of special exhibits; swimming pools establish times for sole use by the elderly; gyms organise exercise classes; Apple offers technology classes; food markets sponsor cooking classes; and hospitals hold lectures on healthy eating. Existing resources are used in new ways: school buses drive seniors to shopping areas in their idle hours; taxi vouchers are provided; and traffic lights are rescheduled to lengthen pedestrian crossing times. Capital investments, such as new taxis and bus shelters, arc designed with ageing in mind. Ruth Finkelstein, director of this Age-Friendly Initiative, notes that:


“The more deeply we get into this work, the more clear the centrality of design, architecture, and urban planning becomes. Architects can be the standard-bearers for an ‘ageing-everything’ approach to design, where we do not wait to develop age-friendly design for ‘old age’ dwellings, gathering places, and communities, but use age-friendly design for all our work -truly creating cities and communities for all ages.”


Other US cities and states are establishing similar programmes. Mississippi, Texas and North Carolina now designate localities that meet certain criteria, such as offering quality medical care and recreational opportunities for seniors, as Certified Retirement Communities. Bloomington, Indiana, is designing a Lifetime Community District with retiree-friendly features like access to transportation and basic and preventative healthcare. In Auburn Hills,Michigan, city agencies collaborate to offer concerts, potlucks and fishing competitions, as well as a senior home-repair programme that uses volunteers who also provide services such as garden maintenance and decorating. Recipients pay for supplies, but not services, and there are no income restrictions. on-profits in Miami hold employer workshops encouraging businesses to employ older adults, and plan to use city parks for senior-targeted fitness programmes.1n other areas existing senior centres are modified as skills-development hubs, with computer training and entrepreneurship programmes.



Innovative Senior Centers

New York City has embarked on a programme to develop innovative Senior Centers offering social programmes that resonate with the identity and independence of their constituents. The centres are also charged with producing high participation rates and improved health. To this end they obtain baseline health information, track improvement, and provide education on nutrition and chronic disease management. Most importantly, their community connections provide reciprocity of intergenerational support and activities that have a longtime identity with their neighbourhoods, including gardening, theatre, or use of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. One centre is affiliated with Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), the largest and oldest nationwide organisation serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender older adults. In addition to culturally sensitive programmes that ease the sense of isolation felt by many GLBT ciders, resources include mental-health programming and health referrals and screening. Another centre in New York is Visions, which is the first organisation in the US to focus specifically on serving a blind and visually impaired senior population.


Since isolation contributes to health deterioration, services that allow seniors to maintain contact with friends, family and healthcare providers are also critical. A notable New York example is Selfhe1p Community Services, a nonprofit housing and social services organisation that has pioneered the creation of Virtual Senior Centers. Selfhelp provides such daily interaction for housebound elderly residents via computer technology within their apartments, which also allows them to participate in classes. In addition to established systems such as emergency nurse call cords in the bathrooms and bedrooms, the organisation provides remote-sensor technology connected to a computer program that recognises daily routines; the smart technology identifies out-of-the-ordinary situations and triggers an automatic alert.


Building lobbies and common rooms in Selfhelp senior housing are provided with Wi-Fi, video-conferencing stations, a computer room, telehealth and brain fitness kiosks, and exercise equipment. The telehealth system runs an array of vital medical tests, sending information directly to Selfhelp’s registered nurses. In the event of a sudden or unexpected change in a resident’s health or well-being, staff members can quickly intervene. Residents are also encouraged to use the Dakim cognitive stimulation and computer learning programs that offer engaging activities to enhance memory, mental agility and overall outlook.



Modifications to the Physical Environment

Improvements to public and private physical environments are also essential. Some cities are creating districts with wider pavements, and central reservations are being added to shorten crossing distances. Many stores have agreed to widen aisles and provide benches. Over the last few decades, compliance with federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the older Fair Housing Act has meant that wider doorways and hallways, no-step entrances, improved railings, and grab bars or reinforcement for future grab bars are now standard in new buildings and major renovations. In addition, many localities are modifying zoning codes, allowing homeowners to add small apartments for family or caretakers.


A primary factor in determining the quality of seniors’ lives is their home environment. The Design for Aging Committee of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AlANY) recently organised an intensive one-day workshop, titled ‘Booming Boroughs’, to generate ideas at multiple scales for modifying existing New York City housing. The group focusing on individual apartments noted the importance of allowing residents to tailor their dwellings to their preferences. Lifelong possessions are important to seniors, and adequate storage and display space is essential. Ease of circulation and vistas are critical, and technology that facilitates communication beyond the apartment should be available. For low-rise buildings where there is no elevator, a basic mandatory ‘toolkit’ of modifications enabling seniors to better negotiate the physical barriers of this building typology was suggested. Improving and enlarging common spaces within higher-rise buildings was emphasised to promote interaction and accommodate services. Options for sharing large apartments and for moving frail residents to lower floors were also proposed. An important principle was to view life as a continuum, with ongoing potential for choice and control, and the goal at all ages of maintaining relevance.


Lessons can be learned from evolving changes in the low-income senior apartment developments built over the last 35 years under the federally sponsored HUD 202 programme. In a presentation at the New York Center for Architecture, Edelman Sultan Knox Wood Architects discussed building modifications they have designed for 202 projects. Many residents require more assistance and companionship as they age, making it desirable to increase on-site social and medical services. To draw people out of their apartments, lobbies are redesigned as social ‘hangouts’ with comfortable seating, daylighting and plants. Security guards at convenient stations can become social lubricants. Rooftops may be used for recreation. Colour aids wayfinding, and patterns in corridors can indicate directions and minimise the perception of distance. Judy Edelman has found that seniors prefer swing-out awning windows, as they are easy to operate and allow good views of the street – ‘where the action is!’


Many of New York’s seniors live in naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs) – buildings or neighbourhoods with a high proportion of long-term residents who are now seniors. Numerous states have enacted legislation enabling qualifying buildings to apply for designation, and making them eligible for public funding of services. Today New York City contains 47 official NORCs. A surprising number are towers-in-the-park complexes that embody the ‘going architectural orthodoxy of the 19605 and 1970s, when
generous government subsidy programmes existed for affordable housing. Many were built as limited-equity cooperatives, which enabled would-be residents to buy apartments at subsidised prices, but also set sales prices below-market. Without economic incentive to leave, the co-op owners have tended to remain. Nowadays when limited-equity cooperatives are no longer built, alternative models are needed to support ageing in place. Rather than towers in superblocks, current city policy favours mixed-use, high-density development that maintain generational and economic diversity as well as strong connections to surrounding neighbourhoods.



Recent Approaches to Affordable Housing

A recent approach by the NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) is to offer the often under-used open space in its existing towers-in-the-park projects for additional housing construction. The sale of land generates much-needed revenue for the authority and the new affordable housing includes units for seniors who can then vacate larger units within NYCHA’s buildings, making them available for larger families. At Soundview Houses in the Bronx, two car parks at the edge of the site are being redeveloped as a mixed-use residential complex with three components: a family rental building with one- to three-bedroom units, a senior rental building with mostly one-bedroom units and more common space, and a row of moderate-income two-family houses for home ownership. Designed by Magnusson Architecture and Planning, the massing of the new complex mediates between the surrounding lower-rise neighbourhood and the original towers-in-the-park public housing, and will include construction of a long-mapped but unbuilt street facing a city park.


Another recent example is Via Verde (the Green Way), a mixed-use, multi-generational, affordable housing complex in the Bronx located on a former brownfield site. The 222-unit development, designed by Dattner Architects with Grimshaw Architects, contains a combination of co-op and rental apartments, from studios to three-bedrooms, suitable for individuals living alone or seniors living with their families. There are simplexes and duplexes, some of which are live-work units in a townhouse arrangement with private entrances directly from the street. The building’s stepped form features a spiralling series of gardens that creates a promenade for residents and acts as a symbolic centre for the. Via Verde community. A public plaza located on the north side of the building can accommodate bi-weekly farmers’ markets to support Via Verde’s many healthful initiatives for its residents and nearby neighbours.


The Via Verde building has been designed for sustainability, and exceeds existing guidelines for environmental responsibility. Ninety per cent of the apartments have two exposures, allowing for optimal cross-ventilation and daylight. Operable, high-performance windows, ceiling fans and exterior solar shades provide residents with natural ventilation and shading during summer. To promote physical fitness, stairs are designed as colourful interior spaces with natural light and ventilation. Outdoor stairs from the courtyard to the seventh floor provide for a continuous connection among the rooftops, which include an evergreen grove, orchard and urban farm. The rooftops are also accessible by elevator.


Since land values in almost all US urban centres have been rising more rapidly than in suburban locations, affordable senior projects in cities other than New York also have to cope creatively with challenged and marginal sites. Just south of Los Angeles’ growing downtown, and immediately adjacent to the 1-10 freeway, the New Carver Apartments designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture explore how architecture can create new possibilities for the city’s vulnerable, under-served residents. The project’s 97 units provide permanent housing for formerly homeless elderly and disabled residents, By incorporating communal spaces – kitchens, dining areas, gathering spaces and gardens – into the Carver’s raised form, as well as medical and social service support facilities into the plinth beneath, the project encourages its residents to reconnect not only with each other, but also with the world outside its doors.


Confronted with a significant level of ambient noise from passing traffic, the form of the New Carver Apartments creates a sound buffer by minimising the building’s area directly opposite the freeway; smaller-scale facets position unit windows perpendicular to the direction of sound, further shielding the unit interiors. As traffic passes from east to west, the building’s facade transforms itself as its saw-tooth facets open to view. The architecture urges residents to connect with the urban context at multiple scales and from the multiple vantage points throughout the building.



What We Are Learning

The practices and specific projects discussed in this article illustrate some common themes: designing multi-generational communities, modifying existing neighbourhood places to make navigation easier for all age groups, providing a variety of services/facilities within residential buildings, designing new buildings to encourage interaction with the surrounding community, and building on difficult sites that were previously considered marginal or unuseable. The US’ increasingly urban population and changing demographics will require continued efforts towards accommodating people in higher-density, pedestrian-oriented communities and creating places that enable people of all ages to live as independently and safely as possible for as long as possible. Or, put more simply, designing for a lifetime. This involves not only the home itself, be it a single-family house or a multiple dwelling, but the entire neighbourhood of human created interior and exterior spaces.




1. Information based on data from the US Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration, presented by US Representative David Schweikert of Arizona in a C-SPAN interview aired on 4 May 2011:


2. New York City’s Department of City Planning, New York City Population Projections by Age/Sex & Borough 2000-2030, Briefing Booklet, December 2006:


3. New York City’s Department of City Planning, 2010 Demographic Tables:


4. World Health Organizatlon (WHO), Global Age-Friendly Cities; A Guide, 2007:


5. AARP, AARP Livable Communities; Great Places for All Ages, 10 May 2013:


6. Ruth Finkelstein, ‘Towards an Age-Friendly New York City: An Overview’ talk at the Center for Architecture, New York, 5 April 2011.