The Changing Face of America: Changing the Face of Planning

by Mariia Zimmerman


Many seniors, like my dad who is an avid bridge player, must rely on friends or family to remain social when transit options are lacking.

Many seniors, like my dad who is an avid bridge player, must rely on friends or family to remain social when transit options are lacking.

America’s changing demographics have been on my mind lately with increased urgency. A few weeks ago I lectured on the topic for a graduate planning course at Virginia Tech; and I also participated on a panel at APA’s Federal Policy & Program Briefing on the topic of shifting demographics with Jana Lynott of AARP,  Maureen McAvey of ULI and Diana Carew of Progressive Policy Institute. These formal presentations provided me an opportunity to think through the profound implications for planning. Yet, the real catalyst behind my recent near obsession with demographic change in America is much more personal.

I had the good fortune to grow up on a farm in rural Minnesota, the youngest of nine. Minnesota is typically not associated with having a diverse population, unless you want to get into the distinctions between the Finns, the Swedes, and the Norwegians. This was particularly the case in my small town of Waseca, MN where the biggest cultural divide was whether your family was Catholic or Protestant. In my school, students of color could be counted on one hand. Today, the demographics of my hometown have substantially changed and are visible in many ways.  One particular challenge for my family is how to help my 89-year old dad who was told he can no longer get behind the wheel of his car but lacks transit access. These trends are not unique to Waseca, but reflect what is happening in many communities especially in rural areas.

According to Demographer William Frey  who was written extensively on America’s demographic change and the 2010 Census:

  • —  Population Growth Means Minority Growth. Between 2000-2010, the US Population grew by 27.3 million with only 8.3 percent of this growth coming from the White population and over half from Hispanic population. Minority populations accounted for all or most of the growth in 33 states
  • —   We are not such a Young Country anymore. In ten years the number of people over age 45 grew 18 times faster than the under 45 cohort. In total, 23 states registered absolute declines in child residents between 2000 and 2010 while 27 states gained children through migration and immigration.
  • —  The Great Divide. Nearly half of the nation’s infants are now children of minority parents and a quarter are Hispanic; whereas of the population age 85 and over, 85% are white.
  • —  Two and A Half Men: Not Just a TV Show. Less than half of all households are headed by married couples, and only 1/5th of all households have a married couple with children. Today’s household types are much more diverse, reflecting changing economic needs and cultural norms across and between races.

Some of the most visible implications of these trends have been in the areas of transportation, housing, health care and  opportunities for wealth creation. Personal mobility is critical to ensure that seniors can access medical care, meet basic needs such as getting groceries and exercise, and remain engaged in their community whether that is through attending church, volunteering at school or the community center, or spending time with families and friends. For many seniors who live in rural or suburban communities the only mobility option is to drive a car. When this option becomes too difficult – for health or financial reasons, few options are available beyond social isolation or a feeling of dependency on others. AARP’s Public Policy Institute has been at the forefront in discussing this trend.

No one likes to admit they are getting older, but every day at least 8,000 babyboomers turn 65! With 90% of Americans over the age of 50 indicating a desire to remain in their current community, we face a daunting challenge. Most American communities are not designed to allow people easy mobility without a car. Affordability and accessibility need to be elevated above congestion in discussions of how our nation's transportation system performs.

Earlier this week NPR ran a story on talking with parents about taking away their keys.  Providing specialized transportation service such as “dial a rides” or  paratransit  for elderly and disabled can be expensive -- 7 to 10 times the cost of a traditional transit trip. Older drivers involved in a car accident have much higher rates of being injured and killed. Despite the fact that over 100 million Americans are over age 50 Congress failed to increase funding in its recent transportation bill (MAP-21) to help fund paratransit services; making matters worse they reduced operating assistance for transit providers and actually cut funding for building new transit service by 10%.

And remember, the most cost effective mobility option is the walking trip, but this requires land use strategies that put housing within close proximity of retail, health care, and other services and also safe and prevalent sidewalks or trails. Perhaps the driverless car will save the day, but that too will require both costly infrastructure investments. Undertaking investments today in transit and making our communities more livable may be a more cost-effective solution, and one that has multiple economic, environmental, and safety benefits for people of all ages.

Ironically, many of the mobility challenges facing America’s aging population are the same facing the youth population who is too young to drive a car; or the recent graduate or entry-level worker who may have limited income and debt so has put off owning a car.  According to the Progressive Policy Institute who have dubbed this the “Great Squeeze”, the Gen Y population (those between ages 16-34) now makes up 1/3 of the labor force and has seen their real average earnings drop by 15% while their debt has increased 25 percent.

In thinking about strategies to meet the needs of America’s aging population, we can simultaneously develop strategies to help the next generation. And in doing so, we need to remember that the next generation is much more culturally, racially and ethnically diverse. Finding this sweet spot should be a goal for planners. Are we building communities where people can age in place? Are we building communities where the youth population wants to remain? Are we developing strategies that meet multiple mobility needs and shifting economics? The answers to these questions will undoubtedly need to be tailored to reflect the unique needs of each community.

Planning itself can be a tool to help bridge the cultural divides between demographic groups in how we plan for future transportation investments, in outreach efforts, and in considerations of how to finance such solutions. Given the demographic splits, people may hold very different views regarding who pays and who benefits.

“…the planning profession is really focused on people and place as well as planning for today and tomorrow. We look at the built environment and we look at the various systems in terms of how they are all interconnected and interrelated. To my knowledge there is no other profession that even focuses on that. We are land managers. We’re placemakers. We also look at the economy of the place. We provide that unique mesh that helps drive how a place grows, shrinks or stays the same.” – APA President Mitch Silver (from Interview with Josh O’Conner of Urban Times, October 1, 2012)

The planning profession must reflect the diversity of the communities for which we plan. The American Planning Association (APA) is helping to support this goal, but we still have a long way to go. A good planner by definition works to represent the needs of an entire community.  Yet, the solutions and strategies we must engage today can benefit from being shaped by a greater variety of cultural and ethnic perspectives.  Just as I bring my rural background – consciously or unconsciously – to the work that I undertake and that has provided me “standing” in working with rural regions, Hispanic, African America, and Asian American planners can also bring a deeper cultural understanding and representation to the planning profession helping to engage with constituencies and crafting innovative solutions to the problems we face today and into the future.