Urban design is becoming more in-demand for older adult populations.

Many older adults looking for senior housing prefer to live near their city-dwelling families and thus look for residences that are located in or near city centers. Others may need access to modern healthcare centers, which oftentimes are located in the heart of urban areas. Others simply may prefer the active lifestyle and culture of an urban environment.

No matter the demographic, there are challenges and opportunities to designing in an urban environment. When it comes to older adult communities, there are a few key elements to consider.

Begin with smart site selection

Many cities are experiencing population growth and rapid new development. Although it may be more efficient to raze an outdated building and construct a new older adult residential building in its place, existing buildings often present adaptive reuse opportunities — that is, a standing building could be converted from an office space or apartment complex into an older adult residence.

Going this route comes down to strategic site selection. When choosing an existing building, it’s essential to consider the building’s location and condition. The building’s structural system should be able to support common areas and amenity spaces specific to older adult needs, whether it is an active 55+ community or an assisted living space. Converting a building into a residence also may elicit required updates to the building code when it comes to fire ratings and egress compliance.

Site selection also is important for reasons of community integration — that is, proximity to community resources and recreation. The sites most conducive to senior living often exist within walking distance of grocery stores, parks or green spaces, restaurants and retail stores. For many, it’s most essential to have medical facilities nearby and within easy access.

Consider high-rise design elements

High-rise buildings are especially common in city settings. Generally referring to buildings that are six to eight stories or higher, these buildings have distinct considerations when it comes to design — especially in terms of designing for older adult tenants.

Consider how residents will use the space, that is, how occupants will maneuver with walkers or wheelchairs, the number of elevators required to move between floors, and whether there are amenities and services within easy reach for those whose movement may be restricted. These considerations especially apply to the location of community dining and activity areas.

Outdoor spaces are something to consider as well. Ground-level green spaces are especially accessible for visitors and family, but space often is limited. Alternatively, common rooftop gardens provide an egalitarian opportunity to take in a view. Another modern approach may be to scatter common open-air patios and plant-filled common areas every few floors, offering easier access for residents throughout the building.

Design for long-term resiliency

Upgrading buildings in urban settings opens the door for conversations about sustainability and resiliency. Resiliency is a term that can be used to indicate an ability to withstand extreme weather, natural disasters and other social or economic issues. It also can be used to describe how well a building can embrace green spaces and present pedestrian-friendly connectivity in walkable, mixed-use urban environments.

A building’s infrastructure systems make up a big part of resilient design. Whether designing new buildings or updating old ones, it’s important to consider power backups, such as emergency generators or solar power; roof and wall insulation as a passive temperature control design strategy; and energy- and water-saving appliances to conserve water and power and reduce ongoing expenses.

Another tenet of resilient urban design involves incorporating intentional green spaces, such as community gardens or green rooftops. Doing so can help combat the “urban heat island” effect in densely populated cities, reducing the need for constant air conditioning. This is an especially important consideration for temperature-sensitive aging communities. What’s more, thoughtful urban design will integrate with existing transit systems and even pedestrian thoroughfares to improve access to nearby urban healthcare and medical centers.  

With a few strategic considerations, designing urban living spaces for aging adults can be done successfully and thoughtfully.