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Walkable Retirement Communities Are Hitting Their Stride

Some suburban towns are resisting the developments because density is at the core of their design

By John F. Wasik

When Joan Robinson was planning her retirement, she didn't look to a gated community in the Sunbelt. She wanted to be able to walk around and engage with people. A former theater teacher and arts administrator, she relishes — even in the middle of winter — her home in Wake Robin, a walkable retirement community in Shelburne, Vermont.

A couple walking their dog in the woods. Next Avenue, walkable retirement community
Wake Robin retirement community, Shelburne, Vermont.  |  Credit: Sam Simon

Wake Robin has more than 400 residents in 250 cottages and apartments on 136 acres near Lake Champlain along with multiple walking paths that connect sections of apartments and cottages with a building for residents who need more care.

Because the community is so walkable, Robinson is out nearly every day with her dog and "didn't feel that winter thing"— pining for a warmer, snowless locale. She meets lots of regular walkers and fellow residents, many of whom carry dog treats for her pooch.

Many Varied Activities

"There are lots of activities," Robinson said, who is on a program committee that oversees some 48 separate interest groups that arrange lectures, performing artists and field trips.

"You have to work at being monastic here."

"I am learning silversmithing and building a bench in a woodworking class shop," she said. "You have to work at being monastic here."

Although they are not the norm yet, walkable retirement communities represent the leading edge of active retirement living complexes where retirees can enhance their physical, mental and social wellness by walking where they need to go.

These developments are not gated, de-emphasize vehicle traffic and may connect with an established town or city. They are so new that the American Senior Housing Association doesn't know how many are operating or being built.

Fitting Into the Surroundings

Michael Glynn, CEO of Monarch Communities, which specializes in walkable retirement developments, said these developments can be integrated into existing towns so that essential services such as retail and grocery stores are a short walk away. They also may feature apartments or townhouses that offer independent living, assisted and memory care.

Glynn noted while older cities with established neighborhoods are already set up to be walkable with a plethora of services, he and like-minded developers are "focused on suburbia, which has limited walkability, although it's harder to build there."

One of Glynn's ongoing projects is a development in Mahwah, New Jersey, which is adjacent to a New Jersey Transit stop and offers living units above retail space. He said the local governmental approval process alone has taken his company two and a half years.

Unfortunately, walkability is a novel concept opposed by countless suburban areas that reject the tandem goals of increased housing density and mixed-used development.

Three people walking down a road. Next Avenue, walkable retirement community
Wake Robin retirement community, Shelburne, Vermont.  |  Credit: Sam Simon

Christopher B. Leinberger, an emeritus professor at George Washington University and developer of walkable communities, says that pedestrian-friendly developments are largely banned by outdated zoning codes in more than 90% of U.S. metropolitan areas. "Walkable retirement communities are in the embryonic phase," says Leinberger. "There's pent-up demand for it."

A Financial Bonus

There's also a financial bonus to walkable neighborhoods: Housing in these areas typically sell for a 34% premium on a price-per-square-foot basis compared to homes in a non-walkable area, Leinberger has found in the largest 35 metro areas. "High-density, mixed-use developments are the future," he adds, "but there's still vast resistance."

While walkable city and small-town locales have existed since the 19th century, fewer new developments follow that model than the market is demanding, notes Leinberger. Suburban governments often get ensnared in the myth that building multiple housing units around clustered services and public transportation is a "NIMBY' (Not in My Back Yard) no-no. Instead, the norm has been to greenlight stand-alone, vehicle-dependent developments not connected to a town or city.

Doubtless there are myriad health benefits to walking in general. According to Harvard Medical School, you can not only improve overall wellbeing by walking every day, you can lose weight, ease joint pain, boost your immune system and reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. And that's just the short list.

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Healthier Lifestyle

"In addition, walkable urban retirement communities have built-in entertainment and culture for retirees that cost nothing or little, reducing operating costs," adds Leinberger.

Far too many retirement communities — especially gated developments — are not close to walkable town centers or amenities.

So it stands to reason that communities that promote walking over driving will be good for you in the long run. Unfortunately, far too many retirement communities — especially gated developments — are not close to walkable town centers or amenities. Walking is also better for your monthly budget, it's better for the earth. You can not only lower your carbon footprint by walking, you may save thousands by not owning vehicles. Invoking the cliché of retirement parlance, you can also "age in place."

Surprisingly, many of the most walkable older communities or neighborhoods are not designated as walkable retirement developments. They already exist in cities that are pedestrian friendly. Many well-established urban — and often suburban — locales are highly walkable as rated by Walkscore, which rates cities and neighborhoods on their relative walkability.

San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., were the highest-rated cities in the Walkscore rating system. But you needed to break their ratings down further since some neighborhoods are more walkable than the entirety of those cities. The Chinatown and Little Italy areas of San Francisco and New York, respectively, were more walkable than other parts of those cities. Boston's Beacon Hill and Chicago's Near North Side scored highest.

What Makes It Walkable?

The key in these evaluations is the ability to reach multiple amenities within a small, clustered neighborhood on foot without having to cross dangerous, busy highways or get into a car. They are usually well served by public transit.

Although several cities didn't make Walkscore's Top 10, you also should consider smaller college towns, which are generally walkable. Smaller cities like Eugene, Oregon; Evanston, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; Iowa City, Iowa; and Gainesville, Florida, offer a range of amenities from cultural activities to university-affiliated health care, for example. They also tend to be more affordable than the leading walkable cities on the Walkscore list.

Although the retirement real estate industry is a slow-moving train, as more active retirees seek alternatives to gated communities, walkable developments may catch on. In the interim, older, transit-rich neighborhoods provide a durable template.

John F. Wasik is a veteran journalist and speaker and the author of 19 books, including “The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream.” Read More
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