imagining cities that support us as we age

I’ve gotten older, and time has taken its toll. It’s nobody’s fault. Those are the rules of the game. Just as a river flows to the sea, growing older and slowing down are just part of the natural scenery, and I’ve got to accept it.

– Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir

Consider the inevitability of ageing in most cities today. As Murakami admits to himself, time will inevitably take its toll and we’ll all slow down. What was once easy, second-nature, habit, will eventually fade. It must. That is the reality of who we are. So, why not approach the design of cities with this in mind? Why not build places, our natural scenery, to reflect this reality? Instead our cities, from top to bottom, are designed around serving the needs of the auto-centric public. Anybody else – the old, young, poor, disabled, the treehuggers, etc. – remains subject to this partial reality.

For many older people, losing the ability to drive is a traumatic experience. It needn’t be. For them, driving equals freedom. Not driving, equals dependence. The fault lies not with old age. It lies with our insistence on denying real life. You want to feel helpless? Create a lifetime of habits dependent upon a learned ability you will prove physically incapable of maintaining as you grow older. This is what we have done. This is what we need to stop doing.

A city designed around the needs of people accommodates its residents as they grow older. As ability fades, the people-centric city offers other ways. More forgiving ways. You can walk to the library or to meet with friends. Maybe you’ll ride a bicycle to the grocery. One of those three-wheeled ones with the big basket in the back. And you won’t worry about your ability to cross six lanes of fast moving traffic in thirty seconds. That would be sweet.

Do we demand this alternate reality. No. We don’t. Follow the announcement of most any new development in any American city and the biggest concern will focus on how much traffic it will generate. Then, if the development will have enough parking. Really. A recently published study by Sasaki, an urban design and planning firm, confirmed this observation. Sasaki found that American’s top two dislikes about cities are traffic and lack of parking. Think about that for a moment. Just…stupid. Maybe I could temper my bluntness but come on.

I love traffic. Love traffic? Why? Because I define traffic as people, not automobiles. This, admittedly, is not the common definition. When people complain about traffic they are complaining about automobile traffic. We’ve created and continue to perpetuate this limited view as singular fact. The former need not equal the latter. That it does is a construct. A subjective, made up thing. Made things can change. If we really want to improve that new development in our neighborhood we need to stop whining about automobile traffic and lack of parking and start demanding limited, or even better, no parking.

Then maybe we’ll begin creating cities that respect the real rules of the game. Of our needs as people.

Imagine that.

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