The senior living industry gathered together to kick off the 2021 EFA Expo and Conference on Sunday, Aug. 29, at the Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.

During the opening keynote, “Retrofitting Suburbia,” speakers Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of agriculture and urban design at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and June Williamson, architecture department chairperson and professor, at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture The City College of New York, drew on their newest book, “Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia,” to offer inspiring strategies and examples of how America’s suburban environments can be retrofitted to help communities support the aging population and address urgent challenges.

Setting the stage for the discussion, Dunham-Jones explained that there’s rising demand for walkable, inclusive design, particularly in the suburbs where population growth of older adults is outpacing that in more urban environments. Additionally, she said the typical form of suburban environments—large boxes surrounded by flat spaces—make them easy, viable options for reinvention.

According to the speakers, several changes are driving a retrofitting of suburbia, including a growing supply of aging commercial properties; climate change and the need for more land conservation; a shrinking middle class; rise in technology use that’s leading consumers to seek more connection and interaction with others; and changing demographics. Market preferences are also shifting, Dunham-Jones added, including the desire for more walkable neighborhoods, vibrant public parks and Main Street attractions, and environmentally friendly lifestyles that include compact, mixed-use, inclusive neighborhoods.

Drawing from their database of case study projects, Dunham-Jones and Williamson took turns sharing examples of suburban retrofits, such as strip centers turned into new residential communities, a vacant mall site renovated into a dementia village, brownfield sites regenerated into walkable parks, and standalone boxes on a field of asphalt redeveloped into five perimeter block buildings with senior living housing and below-grade parking.

To help guide these projects, the speakers offered some urban design tactics that could be used for retrofitting these spaces, including garnering input from key stakeholders, building on greyfields to replace asphalt with housing and a stormwater park, and reusing existing boxes and adapting them to new uses, such as renovating a vacant mall into a dementia village for local seniors.

Williamson also challenged the audience to think about diversifying housing on projects. “Can you add new choices by adding new dwelling types?” she said. Furthermore, she said organizing a mix of residential units, such as row houses, cottages, and apartments, around landscaped amenity spaces helps create a less institutional-types setting, supports stormwater management efforts, and appeals to older adults looking to downsize.

Noting the anticipated surge in aging baby boomers, the speakers discussed the importance of planning senior care as an essential community infrastructure and integrating housing for older adults into walkable neighborhoods. Another idea was to plan for “lifelong communities” using tactics such as:
• Allowing middle market dwelling types that allow older adults to downsize without leaving their neighborhood.
• Allowing accessory dwelling units (“granny units” to enable people to better afford to age-in-place or with family.
• Facilitating social engagement by encouraging front porches, stoops, and front gardens.
• Adopting mixed-used zoning to allow for safe access to everyday needs.

In wrapping up, Williamson added the need for more opportunities for intergenerational interaction and support. “It’s finding the right partnerships,” she said.