Aging + Place: Insights on Design and Policy

The Joint Center for Housing Studies brought together a range of perspectives for “Aging and Place: Designing Housing & Communities for Aging Populations,” a half-day conference at the GSD. Students, faculty, and community members gathered to hear from panelists covering innovative design practices, much needed policies, and new perspectives on age and aging.

Participants were quick to underscore not only the significance of the topic but also the stage and expressed gratitude for the Joint Center’s willingness to recognize a pressing and growing challenge that recognized “housing as the linchpin of well being.” The conference was organized to coincide with the recent publication of the Joint Center’s report “Housing America’s Older Adults,” released on September 2.

In his introduction, acting managing director & research director of JCHS Chris Herbert noted that the significance of the aging of society (and additionally its implications for housing) had already been elevated through the report, evidenced by a recent editorial in the New York Times on “Affordable Housing for Retirees.” Though the report lays out the myriad housing challenges for our aging population, in the areas of financial and physical security, social connections, or supports and services, Herbert was emphatic that there are plenty of “good ideas, hope, and time” to bring together a cohesive vision for bridging aging and place in the coming decade.

The afternoon featured two interconnected components: “Designing Age-Friendly Homes & Communities: The Role of Innovative Design,” and “Building Age Friendly Cities: The Role of Planning and Policy.”


David Hoglund, principal & executive director of Perkins Eastman, opened up the session with an emphasis on the rapidly “changing marketplace” for housing the elderly. He challenged the conventional model of nursing homes and through international examples underscored the need to consider how the huge shift in demographics, consumer desires and technology is shaping the way we design. Hoglund reminded the audience that “sound urban planning is essential” and that through strategic leveraging and partnering, community centers for the elderly could encourage mixed-age and mixed-use functions, such as art galleries, shopping centers or clinics.

Valerie Fletcher, executive director of the Institute for Human Centered Design, underlined the growing need for research on residential design for the “functionally disabled,” particularly with respect to cost-benefit analysis. Fletcher encouraged the audience to widen the understanding of health and wellbeing to also include participation and contribution to society, and concluded her remarks with the reminder, “we’ve got to be thinking more dynamically.”

Amy Schectman, president and CEO of Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, and Katie Swenson, vice president of National Design Initiatives for Enterprise Community Partners, spoke together on the challenges of building affordable housing for the elderly. They emphasized that “quality design is critical,” though an often-overlooked component in affordable housing. Through funding from Enterprise, Jewish Community Housing has been successful in recent years in engaging with “deep design” in the construction of new housing facilities and creating purposeful and strategic social spaces for their elder residents.

Schectman recently penned an opinion piece in the Boston Globe encouraging Mayor Walsh to consider senior housing as a critical component of his new housing plan. Both Schectman and Swenson offered a creative reframing of the way we view aging and affordable housing, reiterating that an appropriate approach to aging often lies in “the way you ask the question.”


Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of the Columbia Aging Center, has a compelling and clear perspective on aging: “We need to make this world work for people who are old. And everybody else.” Finkelstein’s recent work has involved engaging elders in participatory planning for public space, embodying the need to recognize the human capital and capacity of the elder population. Finkelstein thoughtfully prompted the audience to think of “age as an opportunity, not just age as a crisis.”

Len Fishman, director of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, declared that we are now the “pioneers” of a new era, in which we have added decades onto life. As such, he noted the need to adopt more flexible housing policies and incentives that account for shared housing and combined households as care for parents becomes more common. Fishman emphasized the role of cities in bridging the gaps between the aging population and housing: “urban areas are terrific places in which to grow old.”

Sandra K. Albright, former Massachusetts undersecretary of elder affairs, drove home an emphatic point, “There’s a reason we’re in this mess today. Ageism.” Echoing Fishman’s emphasis on housing flexibility, Albright noted the need for a broader understanding of families, and for housing types to reflect the needs of some elder to accommodate a friend, grandchild, or caregiver at home. She noted opportunities in Massachusetts: greater compliance to the 40B state statute for affordable housing and creative use of health services funding to support elders in new ways, such as transportation for medical appointments.

Stuart Dash, director of community planning in Cambridge, emphasized the importance of the “fine grain details” when developing policies that create a safe and healthy city for an aging population. He encouraged “designing playfulness for all” and expressed the need for a broadening of the discussion of age in order to build cities that are apt for children as well as people in their advanced age, all part of his commitment to “provide choice in the city.”

View the video of the forum: “Aging and Place: Designing Housing & Communities for Aging Populations

Read the report “Housing America’s Older Adults

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