Fostering Social Interaction for All Ages

Our rapidly aging population demands a fundamental shift in planning to minimize the economic, social, and health challenges that will otherwise overwhelm communities. Many communities, however, have had difficulty bringing planners and aging professionals together to plan livable communities for all ages.

At the America Society on Aging's 2017 Aging in America conference, over 250 planners and aging professionals did just that — and started a conversation that has continued in many communities and at the national level — including the APA webinar Planning Livable Communities for All Ages.

Social isolation is a silent killer.

Nearly 1 in 5 adults over the age of 50 is at risk. The health risks of prolonged social isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and cost Medicare $6.7 billion annually in increased healthcare costs.

City planners have long recognized that the design of the built environment can influence social engagement. In his seminal book, Livable Streets (1981), Donald Appleyard found that points of social interaction along and across streets increase as traffic decreases.

Residents of light-traffic streets were found to have three times as many local friends and twice as many acquaintances than residents of heavy-traffic streets. Contact across the street was much rarer on heavy-traffic streets. And the sense of loneliness and danger was especially amplified among older residents. "It's not a friendly street — no one offers to help. People are afraid to go out into the street because of the traffic."

More recently, the Center for Active Design found that neighborhood disorder — things like street litter, vacant lots, and graffiti — lower community pride and trust in the police and local government. The Center's Assembly Civic Engagement Survey also revealed that people who report litter to be "very common" in their neighborhood exhibit a 10 percent lower likelihood of believing that community members care about one another.

Where trust is lacking, residents are less likely to venture out, benefit from chance encounters with neighbors, and participate in community activities.

At the March ASA/APA summit, planners and aging professionals came together to discuss strategies for social interaction. Aging professionals emphasized that many older adults do not seek to engage socially in what they consider spaces and activities "for seniors" or "for old people." Social interaction should be naturally occurring, naturally intergenerational, and naturally income-diverse.

Planners' training emphasizes physical design. But as our American Society on Aging colleagues point out, programming is an equally important element for enhancing social interaction. People need places to gather, but attention also needs to be given to the programming of activities within those places so that all feel welcome to use as their own.

One of my favorite examples of how a community brought these two facets together for enhanced social cohesion and engagement is my mother's hometown of West Union, Iowa.

West Union embarked on a Green Streets project in 2007. Today, beautifully landscaped rain gardens and pedestrian crosswalks work in tandem with upgrades to water, storm, and sewer infrastructure and permeable pavement to reduce the environmental impact of the street and increase the vibrancy of the six-block downtown. A small, outdoor amphitheater constructed on the courthouse lawn next to the street serves as a popular community gathering space for outdoor concerts and presentations.

New York City's High Line is another example of melding design and programming for positive effect. This 1.5-mile elevated rail line, converted to wild landscaped walking trail, draws thousands of residents and tourists daily. Owned by the City of New York, the High Line is a public park maintained, operated, and programmed by Friends of the High Line in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

Friends of the High Line programs a variety of activities that appeal to different ages and interests, from tai chi and meditation to kick-boxing and stargazing. Through the Friends' Teen Arts and Culture Council local youth produce public programs in the park that combine arts, culture, horticulture, and social justice.

Summit break-out group participants offered neotraditional town planning as an urban design form that can foster neighborhood social interaction. Think of the pocket park square surrounded by homes with front porches, narrow side yards, and shallow setbacks, all connected to the neighborhood by a network of calm streets, short blocks, and sidewalks to encourage walking.

The park serves as a focal gathering point for the neighborhood. The homes surrounding the park create a perceptually safe, enclosed space with organically generated "eyes on the street." Children will gravitate to playgrounds and open ball fields, teenagers to courts, and most anyone to walking paths.

Typically, the front porches of these neotraditional towns are somewhat elevated to create a transition between the public sphere of the park and sidewalk and the private sphere of the home. The Atlanta Regional Commission's Lifelong Communities Charette showed how these homes can be visitable by ensuring at least one zero-step entrance at the front, side, or back of the home, a Universal Design concept endorsed by AARP and by Esther Greenhouse in her blog post Aging in Place: Housing, Supports, Safety.

The health consequences of social isolation are becoming increasingly well understood. Planners, working together with aging and health professionals in designing and programming for social interaction, will create positive dividends for the community. Let's continue the conversation and collaboration.

Top image: Walking on the High Line in New York. Photo by Flickr user Elvert Barnes (CC BY-SA 2.0).

About the Author

Jana Lynott, AICP

Jana Lynott is a senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute, where she manages the AARP transportation research agenda. As a land use and transportation planner, she brings practical expertise to the research field.

February 12, 2018

By Jana Lynott, AICP