As Amy Levner, AARP’s manager of education on livable communities, explains, “Universally Designed houses and livable communities must be connected. Universally designed houses enhance mobility and quality of life inside the home and livable communities do the same thing outside of the home.” Livable communities coordinate housing, transportation and land use in order to help people access goods, services and social engagement.
Livable communities’ transportation needs are often met by “complete streets” that have been designed to work well for all users – automobile drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and users of public transportation. This is particularly important for older adults, since about 20 percent of seniors do not drive. Complete streets include things like well-maintained sidewalks, traffic calming practices that encourage cars to move at safe speeds, buffers between pedestrians and cars, frequent and well-marked street crossings, interconnected streets that offer efficient walking routes, raised medians to provide refuge for pedestrian curb ramps, audible as well as visual street crossing signals, bike lanes, trees for shade, places to sit and rest, storefronts and parks abutting the sidewalk instead of empty lots or parking lots and plentiful nighttime lighting.
Of course, complete streets only benefit residents if the community has destinations that people want to visit. Most people will walk 1500 feet (about a quarter of a mile or 1/2 kilometer) to reach shopping or transit. Mixed-use zoning that includes both residential and commercial areas can ensure that a variety of retail, health and education destinations are within walking distance. Livable communities also often have a center where people can gather, whether it’s a main street or a public space. “Placemaking” initiatives can create destinations like parks, farmers markets, and even temporary arts and entertainment events where residents can meet and interact. Those curious about how many amenities are within walking distance of where they live can visit www.walkscore. com to find out how well their neighborhood stacks up.
Livable communities benefit older adults, children and teens, and anyone who wants the option of cheaper, greener and healthier modes of transport. Complete streets are safer for all users, and cut down on both gridlock and pollution. Retail stores benefit from the increase in foot traffic, and communities benefit from the sales tax on locally bought goods. Property values increase $500-$3,000 for every one-point increase in a neighborhood’s walk score. Livable communities can also support healthier and happier residents. A 2009 study revealed that adults living in walkable neighborhoods were at less risk of being obese or overweight. A 2012 study compared polling data on happiness from 10 international cities, and found that “cities that provide easy access to convenient public transportation and to cultural and leisure amenities promote happiness.”
Interested in making your community more livable? Consider organizing a “walking audit” of your community to help residents identify concerns, envision solutions and take action. To learn more about walking audits and livable communities see the resources listed below:
AARP’s Livable Communities Digital Hub
- AARP’s Sidewalk and Street Survey Toolkit
- Congress for the New Urbanism
- FHWA’s Walkability Audits
- NEA’s Our Town Grants
- National Center for Bicycling and Walking
- National Center for Safe Routes to School
- National Complete Streets Organization
- Partners for Livable Communities
- Project for Public Spaces
- Walkable and Livable Community Institute
- Walk Score