BUILDING A MORE SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR SENIOR LIVING, Part 3: Global Trends Calling for Community-wide Change

Let’s not kid ourselves. Achieving a sustainable state, let alone sustainable senior living, is likely impossible. But, the potential of individuals, businesses, neighborhoods, and municipalities benefiting from moving closer to a sustainable state is possible. Such a move begins with understanding the trends and then admitting to certain realities regarding their influences. Coming to understand each trend and the ways each will likely influence our daily lives and the built environments that support them will take much more time and space than this article. Even so, th e brief summaries and related realizations that follow should be sufficient to stimulate thinking on why, how, and where to start planning for sustainable senior living.


 Trend #1: Peak Oil

Peak oil is not the end of oil. Peak oil refers to that point in time when 50% of available oil, the most easily harvested oil, has been drawn out of the ground. Although ridiculed at the time, M. King Hubbert’s 1956 prediction that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970’s was realized in 1971 (Deffeyes, 2005). While a growing number of specialists contend that the world’s oil has already peaked, others feel it will peak sometime this decade. That downturn will most immediately be felt as rising transportation, heating, and cooling costs (Shuman, 2000; Heinberg, 2003; Brown, 2006). Given that petroleum is the foundation of most food production and pharmaceuticals, clothing and building materials, and just about every form of goods and services, people, businesses, and communities will need to find new, and some old, ways to increase their energy efficiency and resource availability and access. A glimpse of such a future is seen in the DVD, The Power of Community (Morgan, Murphy, & Quinn, 2006). The documentary of how Cubans dealt with the overnight loss of 80% of their oil supply when the USSR collapsed shows a decentralization of goods and services so as to bring them closer to where people live. They transformed large, petroleum-based, state-run farms into dispersed, small, organic, privately operated urban and suburban farm lots. People’s diets changed and they adopted new means of transportation.

Trend #2: Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes

Americans’ weight problems are estimated to be costing the U.S. about $147 billion annually (CDC, 2009) in direct and indirect medical costs. A comorbidity of being overweight, and once considered an adult disease, Type 2 diabetes is now also a childhood disease. Health-related weight issues also contribute to lost production. Absenteeism is hurting businesses (Tucker & Friedman, 1998) and keeping more and more children and teachers out of school (Finkel-stein et al., 2005). One factor contributing to Americans’ weight problems is inactivity, and one contributing factor to inactivity is the automobile-dependent character of many suburban built environments (Ewing, Schmid, Killingsworth, Zlot, & Raudenbush, 2003).

An increasing number of studies link the automobile-dependent, land-use character of our communities to people’s activity levels and weight (Frank, Engelke, & Schmidt, 2003; Frumkin, Frank, & Jackson, 2004; Cohen et al., 2006). Higher density neighborhoods of mixed land use contribute to people walking more. Adults’ and children’s proximity to schools and parks contribute to living longer (Maas, Verheij, Groenewegen, de Vries, & Spreeuwenberg, 2006; Takano, Nakamura, & Watanabe, 2002). Cuba’s forced transition from cars to bicycles and walking and from petroleum-based agriculture to organic farming contributed to a healthier population (Morgan et al., 2006).

Trend #3: Water Quantity and Quality

Water, like petroleum, is finite. Seventy percent of the earth’s surface may be water; but only about 3% is useable, 96% is saline. Of the remaining fresh water 68% is in ice and glaciers and another 30% is in the ground. Water—like money—can be captured, held, and recycled in a community or given away. Water retention is as big an issue as water access. Many municipalities’ residents and businesses spend good money to collect rainfall in storm water drains and pipe it out of the community and then pay to bring more water in. For many communities, retaining storm water means redesigning environments to hold more water locally so it may seep or leach into the ground rather than wash away. This will require changes to currently antiquated and wasteful regulations and practices (Glennon, 2009).

An excellent example of a community designed around its natural systems is Wallace, McHarg, Roberts, and Todd’s (WMRT) environmentally-sensitive design for Woodlands New Community, north of Houston, Texas, in the early 1970s (Spirn, 2000, p. 108):

In its original plan, engineers compared the capital cost of the natural drainage system to that of a conventional system and found that the natural approach saved over $14 million.

At a smaller scale, artistic, low-impact design (LID) is used to retain storm water runoff in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.

Trend #4: Climate Change

The groundswell admission to humanity’s influences on climate change has become more of a tidal wave. Admissions to ozone depletion, seasonal shifts, and migrating plant communities were initially tempered by the sense that climate changes would be slower (Weart, 2003). As the scientific data and the magnitude of population growth and polluting technological processes became more pronounced, so has the admission that aspects of life at all levels—global and personal—also need to be modified at an accelerated rate.

At the community level those modifications can be accomplished by many of the same built environment changes associated with healthy, active living that save energy and water: smart growth (Ruth, 2006), New Urbanism (Grant, 2006), and LEED building and neighborhood standards (Green Building Council [GBC], http:// Good examples are found in developer Gary Christensen’s Banner Bank building in Boise, Idaho (http://, Jim Sheehan’s Saranac Hotel renovation in Spokane, Washington (Hansen, 2007), Michael Reynolds’ experimental (and inhabited) Earthships in Taos, NM. (Reynolds, 1990, 2000), and Anna Edey’s Solviva Farm that was located on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts (Edey, 1998).

Trend #5: The Aging of Society

Today, with someone turning 55 every seven seconds, and the first Baby Boomers turning 65 in 2011, terms such as retiree, retirement, and retirement community are already being redefined. Come 2030, 24% of the population will be 65 and older. In 2050 the 65+ cohort will constitute one-third of the population. In 2030, 49% of the voting population will be 55 and older. As noted in the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures New Face of Work Survey (Civic Ventures, 2005) 58% of Americans in their 50 s ‘‘want to benefit their communities by . . .
improv[ing] quality of life through the arts or the environment’’ when they retire (Kanter, 2005, p. 11). In that many will live 15 to 18 years beyond retirement, they will constitute a growing human resource (Freedman, 1999). Organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Senior Corps, Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) and MetLife’s Older Volunteers Enrich America Program do employ older volunteers in ways that strengthen neighborhoods and whole communities. Yet, the Boomers’ desire to revitalize a city’s social capital, creative resources, and labor pool remains unnoticed by most communities and universities. One exception is found in San Diego, California’s intergenerational learning programs where ‘‘older adults play key roles in welfare reform, the foster care pro-gram, and early childhood development’’ (National Association of Area Agencies on Aging [NAAAA], 2007, p. 47). Retirement destinations that attract seniors more for their money than their abilities miss the opportunity to employ their knowledge, skills, and energy in building a stronger community.

Each trend will, in some way, influence all our lives, homes, and neighborhoods. Considered individually, the five trends quickly paint sustainable senior living as unattainable. But, dealing with each trend individually is misleading. Considering them collectively, as converging and overlapping trends, allows us to look beyond the dizzying number of specific influences on people, society, energy, and resources and realize commonalities that can be used to outline positive plans of action. Initiation of a movement toward sustainable senior living calls for an integrated understanding that goes beyond the trends themselves. The fact that the trends are overlapping, that we will experience them together over much the same time period, has certain benefits; a positive plan of action with the potential to move communities closer to sustainable senior living starts with five realizations.