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09.16.2008
Graying Gotham
Report explores needs of an aging city

Much has been made of New York’s impending population boom, expected to hit 9 million by 2030. Planners have outdone themselves to accommodate all those new New Yorkers—that’s the idea behind Mayor Bloomberg’s sustainability program, PlaNYC—yet the biggest challenge may not be new immigrants, but the New Yorkers who have been here the longest. While the total population of the city will grow 10 percent by 2030, the number of New Yorkers 60 and older will jump 25 percent, to 1.8 million. At one-fifth of the city’s population, there will be more seniors in the five boroughs than school children.

Yesterday, the New York Academy of Medicine, in partnership with the Bloomberg administration and the City Council, released a report [PDF] detailing the challenges this demographic groundswell poses, as well as possible solutions to issues ranging from safety and transportation to healthcare access and emotional wellbeing. “Most planning for older adults focuses on age-specific health and social services,” Jo Ivey Boufford, president of the academy, said in a release. “These are absolutely critical, but they alone do not insure older New Yorkers can remain healthy and active as they age.”

Instead of simply relying on so-called experts, the academy held numerous town hall meetings, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews to hear directly from older New Yorkers what challenges confront them on a daily basis and how they would like to see them addressed. The report highlights eight major areas of concern: respect and social inclusion, information and communication, civic participation and employment, social participation, housing, transportation, public spaces, and health and human services.

Though the report touches upon issues in civic sectors, there is much designers and planners can do to accommodate older residents. More affordable housing, particularly for seniors, is a major concern, as is the accessibility of such housing. “We heard several stories of elders feeling trapped in inappropriate or uncomfortable housing,” the authors wrote. And this concern extends to other buildings throughout the city, the message being ADA-compliance is not enough. Thoughtful, respectful design must be embraced. 

The city’s mass-transportation was applauded, but it could be more accessible—especially the subway—as well as more reliable, and staff could be more patient, courteous, and helpful. As for public space, benches are popular and in demand and pedestrian safety must be increased.

The report concludes that while the city has “many age-friendly characteristics,” it also has “a number of features that create significant hindrances for older adults, especially those who are poor, linguistically isolated, or in declining health.” To address these issues, the report calls for a broad-based approach that extends beyond government—which has embraced a number of programs, such as the mayor’s All Ages Project—into communities that will work to foster a friendly and comfortable environment for its older members.

Matt Chaban