Studio Report: The Good Old Days

In 2010, Daniel D’Oca, along with his partners at Interboro, told us about their research into Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, and prompted us to consider the challenges and benefits of designing for generational diversity. That investigation concentrated on the amenities that cities (and towers-in-the-park, specifically) offer to the elderly naturally, without intentional planning. But as our population gets older — according to the United States Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2010, the population growth rate was 2.6% for people under the age of 18, and 0.6% for those aged 18 to 44, but was a considerable 31.5% for those aged 45 to 64. and 15.1% for those over 65 — and seniors increasingly pursue options for “aging in place,” rather than moving into retirement communities, the need to design our environments with aging in mind is increasingly important.

In the fall of 2012, D’Oca challenged his Harvard University Graduate School of Design studio — a mix of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design students — to come up with creative ways to improve seniors’ comfort, mobility, safety, and happiness as they age. Here, he shares a selection of student work from “The Good Old Days: Design for the Age-Friendly Environment” and discusses a variety of strategies for aging in place. –V.S.

Thanks to longer lifespans, lower fertility rates, and the aging of the baby boomer population, the United States is getting older. Already, there are more Americans age 65 and older than at any other time in U.S. history. Between now and 2020, the population of persons 65 and older will increase by 50%, a rate ten times the Census Bureau’s projected 5% increase in those aged 18 to 64.

How will our cities and suburbs manage this massive demographic shift?

“The Good Old Days: Design for the Age-Friendly Environment” considered a model that my colleagues Tobias Armborst and Georgeen Theodore and I have been researching for a few years now: the NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community). Basically, a NORC is a place (a building, a development, a neighborhood) with a large senior population that wasn’t purpose-built to be a senior community. NORCs are important because once a place meets the local criteria, it becomes eligible for local, state, and federal funds to retroactively provide it with the support services seniors need. Since an overwhelming majority (89%, by one measure) of seniors today would prefer to “age in place” in their neighborhood or home, and since as few as 9% of seniors say they want to live in an age-segregated community, NORCs present an attractive alternative to purpose-built retirement communities.

But as former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros recently put it, seniors who want to age in place “are aging in traditional homes, neighborhoods, and communities that were designed for yesterday’s demographic realities.” In New York City, 33 of 42 NORCs are in Corbusian “towers-in-the-park,” and some of the first suburban NORCs in the country have popped up in postwar suburbs around Levittown. While both typologies have demonstrated a certain amount of resiliency (Tobias, Georgeen and I have shown how the elevators, green space, and lobbies characteristic of tower-in-the-park developments often work quite well for seniors), both present unique challenges. In Long Island’s suburbs, for example, a lack of housing and mobility options has resulted in many seniors being isolated in houses they can’t maintain.

“The Good Old Days” challenged architects, landscape architects, and urban planners and designers to come up with creative ways to help seniors in NORCs in New York City and Long Island age in place. After visiting a sampling of NORCs in Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Long Island, students met with seniors, NORC directors, healthcare professionals, medical researchers, and representatives from New York City’s Department for the Aging, Housing Authority, Department of Transportation, and others involved in the city’s pioneering “Age-Friendly New York City” initiative in order to better understand the challenges and opportunities that come with aging in place in New York. Students then drew on this research to creatively identify opportunities for architectural, planning, or landscape-based interventions.

As there was no one specific site or program in this studio, students had to be entrepreneurial. However, while students were encouraged to come up with innovative, outside-the-box ideas for aging in place, in the end, the goal was to produce work that resonated with seniors, planners, and policy makers, and that displayed a sensitivity to the existing dynamics of the communities we worked with.

After researching best practices in age-friendly design, students were asked to create interventions that promote aging in place in three different locations: Cambridge, New York City, and Long Island. “Intervention” here should be understood liberally: students were allowed to intervene at a scale that was comfortable to them.

Some students decided to investigate a single idea or a collection of related ideas over the semester, applying the idea to the three locations. Other students decided to do three separate, site-specific projects. We assembled the projects into a lexicon of 22 ideas for promoting aging in place. Here are a few, accompanied by excerpts from the students’ project statements:

Ramp it Up by Katie Chu

Harvard Square is the historical and commercial center of Cambridge, yet stepped entries make several of its stores inaccessible. These obstacles prevent many senior citizens, people using wheelchairs, mothers with strollers, and others with limited mobility from entering. Rochdale Village, a community of 28,000 in Jamaica, Queens, that is comprised of 20 inaccessible “towers in the park,” also faces the problem of stepped entries. Those with limited mobility must take a longer route, through a dilapidated back entry, just to enter their homes. And although Rochdale offers abundant greenery (a rarity in the density of New York), it lacks a sense of human scale in the vastness of its open space. Hempstead, Long Island, presents a similar problem as the standard house typology also includes stepped entries.

This project explores the potential of ramps to remedy the accessibility issue, activate underused green spaces, and mediate between private and public. It also explores how this seemingly simple construction can be pushed to perform in other ways. In Cambridge, ramps can activate underused sidewalk space or create incentives for businesses to fund their construction. In Hempstead, ramps can reactivate the suburban fabric by acting as stoops from which seniors can engage public activity from within their own private zones, and create semi-public spaces for new forms of gathering.

Share a Scooter by James McNally

Scooter Share is a service that provides mobility scooters for physically challenged seniors and the disabled. It operates on a model that leverages existing senior-specific infrastructure — including retirement and nursing homes, naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), pharmacies — to deliver short-term scooter rentals on a local scale. Scooter Share (what might be dubbed “the ZipCar for scooters”) can run as a for-profit enterprise, in which case advertising and a modest membership premium represent the main source of revenue for the operator.

Fast Track a Golf Cart by Rachael Cleveland

Constructed in 1976, Spring Creek Towers, formerly called Starrett City, is a 46-tower residential development in Brooklyn, New York. 2,900 of its 15,000 residents are seniors who are active, but, because Spring Creek Towers was built without any on-site amenities, many have to walk or scoot quite a distance in order to get even the most basic staples. To offer an alternative to the standard delivery approach for senior services, this intervention creates multi-modal transportation network sympathetic to the needs of senior residents of Spring Creek Towers. A safe and convenient transportation circuit physically links sites such as grocery stores, libraries, schools, medical offices and parks, thereby increasing mobility for the entire community. At two meters wide, this alternative transportation path, or Fast Track, could accommodate scooters and wheelchairs as well as bicycles, strollers and skateboards, benefiting residents of all generations. The connected sites are also opportunities for social interaction so what initially begins as a transportation improvement ultimately serves as a catalyst for tactical spatial appropriations and new forms of public space.

Accessorize by Charlene Chai

This project proposes inserting accessory apartments into existing garden apartment buildings in Jackson Heights to bring together seniors who live alone in large apartments and local immigrant families who need affordable housing. As a result of the shortage of affordable housing, many New Yorkers have resorted to informal, illegal, often unsafe housing, such as partitioned units and basement accessory apartments. 70% of the population in Jackson Heights are first generation immigrants and 35% of homes in the neighborhood have an accessory apartment. At the same time, fewer New Yorkers live in nuclear families, for whom these larger apartments were intended. 26% of all households live with an additional adult and over half of these households are immigrants. At the other end of the spectrum a third of all households are people living alone. This includes many seniors whose children have moved out and whose partners have passed away. Furthermore, most seniors are reluctant to scale down to a smaller apartment, even within the same housing complex. As a result, many seniors who live alone have enough space to accommodate additional several people. For seniors, the benefits of living with a non-family member include a rental income, help with household maintenance, and the prevention of social isolation. Accessory apartments can be a way to accommodate the financial and social needs of these non-traditional households.

Put the “Park” Back in Parkway by Jack McGrath

In southern Brooklyn and Queens the Belt Parkway and its adjacent parkland define the shoreline from the Narrows, past Coney Island, and along Jamaica Bay. Clustered around the Belt are some of the city’s highest concentrations of seniors, including all of Brooklyn’s NORCs in some of Brooklyn’s most colorful neighborhoods, as well as the NORC at Rochdale Village, “the Jewel of Jamaica.” A new mode of travel through this band of neighborhoods, NORCs and parks would catalyze these relationships, providing the range of recreation opportunities and popular amenities to residents across the Belt region: a recreational public bus route, operating in the leisurely space of a parkway HOV lane, providing direct access to golf courses, greenways and beaches, making stops at shops, restaurants and racetracks, and linking NORC programs through a common initiative to pool resources and build a regional community.

Remodel with the Remod Squad by Kelly Lynema

The Remod Squad is an organization created in response to a change in health insurance policy for low- to moderate-income seniors that provides an allowance for two tiers of home design modifications aimed at making the home a place where seniors can age in place. Upon qualifying for the program, seniors work with their Remod Squad team to select from a menu of renovation options, tailoring them to fit their own home and lifestyle. The result is a gradual introduction of universal design into the homes and apartments of seniors across the city — enabling seniors to stay in their homes longer, providing cost savings to health insurance companies who otherwise would have to pay for a portion of assisted living or nursing home fees — and an overall introduction of lasting design changes that will benefit future tenants and residents of all ages.

Communalize the Kitchen by Simon Battisti

Food is a natural link between strangers of different generations — a common ground where pride in shared culture transcends age. Communalize the Kitchen foresees a near-future where policymakers, property owners and entrepreneurs begin to recognize areas where small business can insert necessary services of higher quality than is possible through public sources, and at the same time benefit the entire community, not just one group. In assessing priorities for NORC funding, seniors consistently rank meal preparation lower than other activities of daily living like transportation, help with household chores, shopping, and service coordination. Unfortunately, in merely delivering adequate nutrition, public food service can miss out on the mental and physical health benefits that come with robust food culture. NORC experts have noted that in general practice, policymakers wrongly tend to think of older people as a collection of deficits to be addressed. Indeed, as long as funding for food service is framed in terms of “needs”, a robust food culture that addresses intangibles like happiness will remain out of the scope of public services. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that public funds are not best spent addressing wants, but that in partnership with private enterprise, NORCs can augment their programming — and for the same cost, provide better service.

Screen Movies on the Lawn by Siobhan Brooks

A little-used and overscaled lawn separating five residential buildings at Spring Creek Towers is activated visually, topographically, and programmatically, in a way that would only be possible in a tower-in-the-park setting. The grade of a portion of the lawn is lowered and paved to create a bowl-shaped central plaza which is connected to the surrounding towers by a new pathways. The fill cut from the plaza is used to construct vegetated berms defining the new circulation system and creating a sense of protection around the plaza. The plaza is used for markets, performances, and ice skating, and can become an IMAX movie screen. The closest towers support projection equipment, and apartment balconies become semi-private theater booths. The scheduled screenings create new opportunities for social interaction between residents of the neighboring towers as they enjoy movies from the comfort of their balconies. In this way the lawn is occupied from the ground up by all residents regardless of age or mobility.

Accentuate the Positive Intergenerational Interactions by Eunsae Park

Inter-generational programs or spaces are fantasized by designers as simple ways to resolve issues of accommodating aging populations. Yet many conflicts and safety issues can arise when seniors and children occupy the same space. The Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center is an unusual NORC, in that it is co-used by both afterschool and senior programs. Without adequate management and funding, the center is chaos and simply not a pleasant place to be. The main goal of the intervention is to reduce conflict and increase interactivity between seniors and children. While general improvements range in scale from simply changing light fixture types to redesigning the courtyard, these physical changes aim to create multi-sensory environments beneficial to both seniors and children. The interventions suggested for the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center can also be replicated in other urban NORCs, not only to improve interaction between seniors and children but also to create better places for aging population.

The Good Old Days: Design for the Age-Friendly Environment
Option Studio, Fall 2012
Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Department of Urban Planning and Design
Faculty: Daniel D’Oca, with Jana Cephas
TA: Jack Becker
Students: Simon Battisti, Siobhan Brooks, Charlene Chai, Katie Chu, Rachael Cleveland, Parisa Hashemean, Jenny Jiae Lee, Juho Lee, Kelly Lynema, Jack McGrath, James McNally, and Eunsae Park
This studio was made possible in part by a generous grant from the Rauch Foundation and the Long Island Index, which gathers and publishes data on the Long Island region.

Daniel D’Oca is an urban planner and designer who specializes in the politics of the contemporary built environment in America. He is Design Critic in Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Design School, and Principal and co-founder of Interboro Partners, a New York City-based architecture, planning, and research firm that has won many awards for its innovative projects, including the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program, the Architectural League’s Emerging Voices and Young Architects Awards, and the New Practices Award from the AIA New York Chapter.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Studio Reports

Student research and propositions from design studios with real-world implications.