The Senior Moment

C-LAB Symposium on Aging and the City

On 13 June 2012, The Columbia Lab for Architectural Broadcasting hosted an evening event on aging and New York City at Columbia’s Studio-X. Continuing the work begun in issue 27 of Volume magazine, ‘Aging Fight or Accept’ and more recently, with the C-Lab-certified issue 29, ‘The Urban Conspiracy’, this symposium engaged experts from multiple disciplines who are actively shaping the future of aging in cities. From housing and environmental design to emerging technologies and social networks that foster aging-in-place, The Senior Moment surveyed and challenged received notions about the aging population and the aging built fabric of New York.

Aging and urban design go hand-in-hand as issues of physical resilience play out both in the body and in material of the city. If at the macro level, population aging is too often considered a point of socioeconomic crisis rather than as a resource with embedded potential, when scaled down to the individual, aging is seen as a liberating phenomenon, enabling baby boomers with surplus dollars to actively pursue any number of alluring post-retirement fantasies. Within this space between crisis and hedonism is a more measured practice of life-course management, eroding the clean break between adulthood and senior citizen status. Here, a person is considered to be aging from the moment of birth and the physical environment is called upon to support healthy habits and lifestyle practices from day one. Consciously or not, this discursive framework brings forward issues such as risk and analytical power when evaluating both the permissible extent of personal freedom and the need for smarter approaches to the material environment.

With this ecological turn, the implications of the existing built environment take on a greater immediacy. For cities that are largely built-out, improvements to the physical fabric must often contend with the demands of historic preservation, the lack of available space, the need for adaptive reuse, and the difficulties posed by overtaxed and aging infrastructures. In this context, urban revitalization requires creativity in design and policy negotiation, forcing architects and planners to step up their games in order to exert any effect on the city. With regard to aging populations, naturally-occurring retirement communities (NORCs) and new street plazas or pop-up parks are representative of the types of projects that might emerge in the “City 2.0,” but additional innovations will be required to address both an aging building stock and a new crop of
buildings whose lifespans are outstripped by those of their inhabitants.

The Senior Moment will engage the two parallel threads of aging in the city and aging of the city as they pertain to New York and serve as a prototype to develop a means by which to approach other cities across the globe as they begin to grapple with the urgencies of aging.

Below is a brief sampling of the evening’s provocations:

Jeffrey Inaba, Director, C-Lab
“We often think of a ‘senior moment’ as a brief instance when an elderly person has a momentary loss of orientation or a loss in their stream of thought. For us, a ‘senior moment’ is a historical moment in which aging is a central social issue. Moreover, we want to challenge the typical belief that the elderly are not active in terms of urban policy and development issues. We suggest in Volume 29, entitled, The Urban Conspiracy, the idea that maybe in fact people who are in their 60s and 70s are deeply involved in urban issues and highly informed of the implications of urban development for all.”

Linda Fried, Dean, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health
“A disease we have as a society and as a culture is something called a scotoma - a scotoma is a stroke in the nerve that goes to the eye - and if you have a stroke in the nerve that goes to the eye, you actually get a hole in your vision. We have individual scotomas around this issue of getting old - in fact, we have a great aversion to even thinking about it because it is frightening to us, because it suggests death - and we have a societal scotoma about thinking or planning for this, and in fact about considering that longer lives might be a value to all of us.”

“There’s only one increasing natural resource in the entire world, and that is older people. We have the best educated, healthiest population of older adults in the history of the world alive now, and there are more older adults alive now than have ever lived in human history if we added them together. What if you designed models that could harness the time, energy, education, well-being, and generativity of older people to secure the world as a better place? How would you design our cities, as well as our social institutions, to benefit from that deep drive to generativity? If you design it well, you offer social integration for older people, and, actually, health for them as well. And if older adults are healthier, there’s a virtuous cycle because they’ll stay engaged and we will benefit.”

Richard Rosen, Principal, Perkins Eastman, Co-Chair, AIA Design for Aging Committee
“One thing that has been interesting in the Design for Aging Interest Group at the AIA is that so many people in New York are dealing with this issue. New York, ironically, is one of the most age friendly cities in the world and it’s also one of the most difficult to change because of the cost of real estate, older buildings, building codes, things like that. Much of what we do in the Design for Aging group and as architects in the city, is to really try and work to make the city more age friendly, and encourage communication between city agencies when initiatives are raised.”

“Seniors should be allowed to be seniors and enjoy all the benefits of old age - they don’t have to be productive - they should be allowed to do what they feel is right and contribute to society and their personal happiness in ways that they’ve earned, and if we can create environments that enable that then I think we’re doing a good job.”

Elyzabeth Gaumer, Director of Housing Policy Research and Evaluation, NYCHPD

“One of the great things about New York and also one of the challenges is that the vast majority of older adults currently, and will, live in age-integrated buildings and neighborhoods. For better or worse, that means that many of the housing challenges older adults face are one and the same with the housing challenges that we all face.”

“Aging in place is the trend for many older adults, but in New York City, we’ve been aging in place for decades. It’s just the nature of our city. Part of that is preference, but part of it is the unintended consequence of certain policies like rent regulation. It’s not enough to think about how we adapt environments for older adults right now, we also really need to start thinking ahead of the curve to ensure that where 40 and 50 year olds are moving now will be able to sustain them into older age, particularly as longevity increases.”

“From the outside perspective, watching how city funding is allocated for developments, I think that the projects that really come forward and are able to get off the ground are ones where there’s some kind of partnership and there’s actually leverage. So, you’re coming to us for one dollar, but there’s already at least seventy five cents on the table. And it doesn’t matter how many partners you need at that table to get seventy five cents, but it really helps, and I think the city is willing to go the extra mile to make up that dollar if it happens.”

Georgeen Theodore, Principal, Interboro Partners, Director, NJIT Infrastructure Program
“We discovered that ‘Towers in the Park’ is an excellent architecture for a community of seniors - the elevators, the wide hallways, the communal green spaces, the community facilities, amenities like a pharmacy on the same block, doctors, transportation, and so on. In recent years so many tower projects have been maligned or taken down because of a belief that this kind of architecture creates estrangement or social problems, but here we found exactly the opposite, and we asked ourselves that could it be that Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities provide a new calling for this much maligned modernist housing typology.”

“NORCs emerged from very specific economic, social, and spatial conditions. The limited equity co-op, an engaged lefty community, and the tower in the park architecture were the perfect set of ingredients to allow NORCs and the NORC SSP to emerge. But the really fascinating thing is that the NORC model has been applied and used elsewhere - NORCS are now outside of New York City and they’ve moved into other types of architecture and other urban conditions.”

Jesse Mintz-Roth, Senior Project Manager, NYCDOT
“One of the things that makes New York City different than other cities in the US is that over 50 percent of the traffic fatalities are pedestrians. In 2010 seniors made up 11 percent of New York City’s population but 30 percent of those traffic fatalities among pedestrians. So, seeing the overrepresentation of senior pedestrian fatalities, the New York City Department of Transportation created the first city senior pedestrian safety program in 2008.”

“We’re a new program and we’ve been fairly successful among DOT programs applying for money, probably because the federal funders who fund our programs are not used to funding pedestrian safety, or definitely not senior pedestrian safety. These new grants that fund capital improvements that improve safety, and also improve the public realm in some cases, are very vague in terms of what they ask for. In a sense, for new programs like this, there aren’t really competitors, and I think that we’re sort of selling the senior cause more effectively.”

Caryn Resnick, Deputy Commissioner, External Affairs, NY DFTA
“A couple of years back the City, in partnership with the New York Academy of Medicine, the City Council, and the Mayor's Office, started a blueprint for making New York City more livable called Age Friendly NYC. One initiative we’re very proud of is the Innovative Senior Center, as there was real desire to begin to really change the face of our senior centers, especially as the face of aging is changing. One of our new populations that we funded was SAGE, which serves the LGBT community - it is the first ever senior center that is focused on serving the LGBT community.”

Jeffrey Rosenfeld, Gerontologist and Professor of Design, Parsons The New School for Design
“The coming of ethnically themed retirement communities - for Hindus, for people of Japanese ancestry, Chinese ancestry, Vietnamese ancestry -  to the United States signals the beginning of new opportunities for architecture, design, and product development. Because here in the US, the needs of these aging newcomers are not being met by traditional forms in the built environment and certainly not by traditional social structures.”

“What we have going on now is migration characterized by people coming here from ‘new’ nations of origin - a huge influx of people from India, from China, from Japan, and Korea. Often, they come to us from gerontocracies. Until now the only ethnically themed work that I’ve come across is ethnically themed retirement, but I do predict more ethnically themed housing because an influx of older immigrants from other countries is going to create more three generation families, and there will be the time, the money, and the desire to create something realistically and authentically new.”

Stephen Johnston, Founder, Aging 2.0
“Aging 2.0 is a virtual network of innovators who are interested in the space of aging and are drawing across business, technology, and policy to create energy around new solutions. And we’re united by this common theme that there’s actually a positive opportunity here, something which I think the business community has still yet to embrace.”

“There’s a potential with technology which is really fascinating, and there’s a huge upside in the senior living space, which is chronically short of any technology, or late into technology adoption. We’re seeing some really interesting ways in which costs can be taken out of the system and the quality of services can be improved massively using new kinds of technology.”

Thomas Kamber, Executive Director, OATS
“People are aging in an urban environment context in a period of time in which we’re increasingly awash in information communications technology, and that’s a very powerful portion of the environment that people are making decisions within and making planning choices within. There are some significant issues in terms of seniors adopting technology and programs that are trying to help seniors learn technology, use it, and advance their lives with it.”

“Something we’ve been working on is the country’s first technology-themed community center for older adults. This is going to be an environment where people can come together around technology-based solutions to problems and issues that they’re facing. We’re going to focus on workforce training, chronic disease self-management, and technology exhibits where older adults can learn about emerging technologies and get information about what’s possible. We’re looking at a monthly speaker series with live casts out to the 23 labs we’re building, talking about issues like social isolation, elder abuse, and financial planning, but all with a little bit of a technology angle.”

Aubrey de Grey, Founder and Chief Science Officer, SENS Foundation
“I, and the SENS Foundation that I represent, are interested in the early proof of concept work that will lead to dramatic changes in the health of the elderly, and therefore in the needs of the elderly. Everything that we think about today, in terms of the needs of the elderly, revolves around how long ago they were born - it ain’t going to be that way in the future. To those of you who are thinking about infrastructure of cities, I want to emphasize to you that you need to be thinking about what the elderly will need in the short term for sure, but you also need to be thinking about the changes that will occur in what they need one decade, two decades out.”