Cities are human ecosystems – they pose challenges and opportunities. They are democratic.  As Jane Jacobs said they are about density, diversity and dynamism.  With the National Zoning Act of 1923  such diversity became illegal or highly regulated. Both the car and the elevator made the new monocultures possible and changed the city – what emerged were suburbia and shopping malls on one hand and financial “downtowns” on the other, socio-economic and use segregated zones. We are now trying hard to “fix” them since we have recognized that they are neither socially nor environmentally sustainable.

In my recent presentation at Build Boston 2011 sponsored by the formidable Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) I argued that socially sustainable design is the key for solving the challenges of an aging population. Socially sustainable design means designing for human needs. This implies that such solutions have to be integrated and interdisciplinary, specific and not generic. Solutions for suburbia look different from the one for a dense urban or a rural area. Spatial design and service design solutions have to be integrated. Whatever we call the places we live in – cities, communities, neighborhoods, gated communities, rural areas, suburbia – they are all have to answer to the needs for being “at home with growing old”.

When mixed-use developments are designed with social sustainability in mind they can offer such answers and produce wonderfully inventive and at times idiosyncratic results, both aesthetically and socially. We are not talking about the typical housing-retail mix that has brought us many miles of empty store fronts. We are talking about combining housing with civic functions such as the Mission Creek Project in San Francisco that houses affordable housing units and a branch of the San Francisco Public Library or looking at public transportation as a means of universal, equal accessibility for all ages as exemplified with the Vienna Public Library that is built over a major subway terminal.  Such adjacencies find different expressions or interpretations such as a senior housing project in Austria that shares the grounds with a pre-school or a nursing home that is is the result of a design competition and becomes the object of civic pride in a small town.

Let’s define principles for mixed-use developments not only for planners and developers but in a language that invites interdisciplinary collaborations and acknowledges equally innovative thinking in both spatial and social design; Alliance – Adaptability – Mobility.  Alliances in the early stages of developments, such as between planners and the transportation industry, between healthcare and housing have the potential to be truly sustainable. Adaptations of existing buildings for new functions or adaptations of buildings that lend themselves to be universally accessible harness the energy of an established environment. Creating mobility with the understanding that it is not only about going “into the world” but also about the world “coming to us” grants universal access in the true sense.

When we design for the human needs of an aging society we are designing for all of us, we design for inclusive and multi-generational, livelong and thus sustainable communities. The challenges of this demographic shift are a chance for all of us to rethink how we live in our homes, our communities, our cities.

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