AARP Strives to Improve Community Livability

March 3, 2016

The choices people make when deciding where to live tend to be driven by their current circumstances, such as their income, health, and whether they have children, but people tend to avoid thinking about how things will change as they get older and their needs evolve.

That issue is at the heart of an effort by AARP to encourage communities and individuals to plan for the future when they make decisions about their homes and neighborhoods. The organization’s Public Policy Institute is working to help local leaders identify issues that may make it hard for people to stay as they move through different life stages or encounter unforeseen obstacles.

As part of the initiative, the institute has developed an online index that rates communities using a variety of factors, including the availability of accessible housing, public transportation, quality healthcare and good schools.

“People don’t necessarily understand what they may need years from now,” said Rodney Harrell, the institute’s director, livable communities. “We need to actually help people think about that, because nobody wants to get older.”

What makes a city livable?

The type of housing in a community—and its affordability—is particularly important to determining how livable it is, Harrell said during a recent REALTOR® University presentation at NAR’s Washington office, because the type of home that suits a person or family will change as their lives evolve.

Transportation options are also critical, he said, because people used to driving need to have other options for getting around if they are no longer able to get behind the wheel.

Harrell said that while many communities offer a range of features that make them appealing, no one city in the country has the perfect mix of livability characteristics. In addition, many communities work particularly well for certain people even as they are challenging for others, he added.

For example, a car-dependent suburb without public transit may be fine for people who are able to drive and can afford a vehicle, but challenging for those without the ability to drive, he said. Similarly, an area without many homes that can accommodate people in wheelchairs may not be a concern for a young person without physical limitations but could pose a problem if a family member suddenly finds it hard to climb stairs.

Another challenge for communities is that people have individual preferences about where and how they want to live—and those preferences will also change over time and are affected by factors  such as cost and availability, Harrell added.

“When you take those sets of preferences and those limitations, you end up with where people are,” he said. “A large part of our work is around building awareness [among] individuals and policy makers around how communities are structured and how that can impact the preferences of the people that are there now and will be there in the future."

—By Sam Silverstein, REALTOR® Magazine