Our Views: Action needed for ‘old’ cities

An AARP survey suggests that more than four of five older Americans expect to stay in their homes when they retire.

What happens to them in Baton Rouge when they are no longer able to drive?

That’s a question that is pregnant with trouble for many cities across the country with the tradition of suburban sprawl. Planners across the nation, as well as in Baton Rouge and other Louisiana cities, grapple with the problems that are coming.

And ensuing they are. Against time and tide man struggles in vain — and time is against older drivers, and the tide of traffic will overwhelm their vision and reflexes sooner or later.

People are living longer and more-active lives, according to planners cited by Governing magazine. “It isn’t your grandmother’s aging,” quipped Terri Lynch of the Arlington (Va.) County Agency on Aging.

Arlington was the jurisdiction, just outside Washington, D.C., where Governing surveyed the extensive actions — more than just the talk you hear around most city halls — to adjust to an aging population. By 2030, the county’s over-65 population is projected to double, and its over-85 group is set to almost triple.

Modifications to street crossings to make them safer to pedestrians, buses that don’t require a big step up to get into, biking lessons for seniors — all are relatively small-budget items but have required the always-conservative government to change its policies.

One bigger issue: zoning. The large suburban subdivision is a function of government power, with zoning laws traditionally requiring sprawl; mixed uses found in older neighborhoods were forbidden.

In Arlington, the zoning law is allowing homeowners to build additions to their homes — “granny flats” — that can provide housing for older family members. In the past, homeowners’ associations invoked zoning to prevent that type of construction in many cities.

Alan DeLaTorre, project coordinator at Portland State University’s Institute on Aging, told Governing that housing construction must change. “For the last 50 to 100 years, we’ve been building Peter Pan housing,” he said. “It assumes you’re not going to grow up and grow old.”

“We’re in a period of transition that’s pretty dramatic,” added David Dixon, who leads the planning and urban design practice at the Boston-based firm Goody Clancy. “You look at major metro areas, and sometimes a third or more of their growth for the next 30 years is folks over 65. That’s a hugely (significant) and rapid transition.”

Driving is, of course, a critical matter in places — Baton Rouge prime among them — where sidewalks and bike paths are rare, and pedestrians of any age are trekking through mud when it rains, and have little shade when the sun shines. The issue is how legions of older people can get around safely in coming years, because people can walk much longer than they can safely drive.

Governing quoted the planning director of Westchester County in New York. “In all of the surveys that we do of seniors and the outreach to the senior community, we find that their No. 1 concern about getting older is transportation,” director Naomi Klein said. “They don’t want to lose their independence. There’s real concern about having to give up driving.”

It is a real issue when the older citizen is a fast-growing demographic.

The Governing piece highlighted suburban jurisdictions where officials are taking significant action, instead of the endless task forces and studies and do-nothing “achievements” of Baton Rouge’s city hall. Here, every change is treated as requiring an Act of Congress, and every significant change is prejudged as too costly.

There is some better news elsewhere in the state, as “smart growth” policies are being pushed by leaders in Lafayette and New Orleans. In the latter a “complete streets” ordinance seeks to ensure that the needs of everyone using a street — not just drivers — are planned for in design and construction. Better funding, both state and local, for public transit does make a difference. Voters in Baton Rouge have passed a first-ever property tax for the support of transit. State support remains limited.

Increasingly clear, though, is the cost of acting as if time and tide do not matter.