Chien-Chi Chang / Magnum Photos

We Need More Four-Generation Cities, and Neighborhoods

Josh Greenman

August 16, 2023

Age diversity is a crucial indicator of wellbeing

Age diversity is a crucial indicator of wellbeing

Every city dweller has his or her own measure of what makes a metropolis worth living in. Many scholars and activists say it’s of paramount importance to us all to have far more racial, ethnic and economic diversity in now-segregated urban centers, and it’s hard to argue with that. In recent years, others have suggested that the true test of livability is how many people can access everything they need within a 15-minute walk (or bus ride or public transit trip) from their homes. Or perhaps, as one recent thought-provoking essay posits, what we really need is a 15-minute city for friendship, in which people can come together near where they live to feel a rewarding sense of community and belonging. In Vital City earlier this year, 17 New Yorkers offered their own novel indicators of urban vitality.

While all these ideas are admirable, there’s a dimension of urban living that’s gotten far too little attention in recent years, and that’s how often we facilitate bonds among people of different ages. A paucity of such relationships produces depressingly one-dimensional communities, and a wealth of them enriches us individually and collectively.

Far too often in our wider metropolises, people wind up siloed based on their life stages, creating neighborhoods or districts that function as work or playgrounds for single people or young families or the elderly, and fall short as genuinely balanced neighborhoods. Some of this is a natural byproduct of modernity, and of mobility: People are more far-flung because they can be, so they cluster near others like them. But places where people at all life stages coexist, and where public and private sector institutions serve all types, are more humanizing places to live, which is why, even better than building a 15-minute city, we should aspire to create a four-generation city, replete with four-generation neighborhoods.

This is not to say we should pretend we can have neighborhoods that are perfectly mixed, with populations as balanced as the wider population. There’s an understandable tendency for young people to want to live around one another, where they can drink and dance and connect and socialize at all hours. Many of us spent a few years of our lives in exhilarating college towns. There’s an analog for young families: I’ve lived for more than 25 years in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood caricatured for the strollers and dogs that crowd its sidewalks and its endless businesses that cater to families’ needs. For their part, older people have a legitimate reason to gravitate toward communities with ready access to the health care and mental health care services they increasingly need as they age. We can’t begrudge some elderly people from preferring to live in communities where nobody under 55 is welcome, where the hottest club is the bingo hall.

But as tempting as it is for people at different life stages to drift apart and go about their business, it’s hard to deny that neighborhoods and cities grow far more enriching — and, ultimately, healthier for all — when we go out of our way to encourage generational intermixing.

We can better understand what we gain by living near each other by looking at multigenerational homes, where kids can learn not only from their parents but their grandparents; where bills and household chores and child-rearing responsibilities are shared; and where grandparents get the mental stimulation, social interaction and additional assistance in day-to-day living they need, bit by bit, as they age. (Intergenerational friendships are far more rare, but can still be deeply rewarding.)

Places grow far more enriching — and, ultimately, healthier for all — when we go out of our way to encourage generational intermixing.

Neighborhoods benefit from age diversity in similar ways. The most obvious beneficiaries are the elderly. Loneliness and social isolation often go hand in hand with more serious health conditions, from dementia to heart disease to stroke. The COVID pandemic, which tore through nursing homes, was an especially vivid demonstration of the risks of older people living apart from the rest of us: When we put them out of sight, we keep them far too out of mind.

One 2020 study asserts that older people who live in walkable, age-diverse neighborhoods are likeliest to live to age 100. Another says that the mere presence of younger individuals lengthens the lifespan of the elderly. It’s no surprise that college towns, with energy, culture, opportunities for lifelong learning, walkable streets and quality health care, are increasingly being touted as nice places to retire.

But generational intermixing is not just charity for older folks. When younger people are in the presence of their elders, they may be less likely to be dragged down by their own self-absorption and concomitant loneliness. They can gain respect for those who might move a little slower or have a little harder time hearing. That’s in our collective self-interest because all of us (God willing) will eventually join the ranks of the elderly. 

Of course, we shouldn’t be naive: Living in the general vicinity of older people is no guarantee that younger people will actually have meaningful interactions with them, and vice versa. But it’s a start.

This isn’t zero-sum. Though young, single people probably have the highest tolerance for noise, and families have the highest tolerance for sidewalks crowded with strollers, dogs and kids, many of the things older people want and need overlap with what younger people want and need. From a purely practical perspective, better designing neighborhoods to be friendly to the elderly redounds to the benefit of the rest of the population. Older people need functioning elevators and curb cuts and culture and welcoming third places to spend time. So do disabled people of all ages, and parents pushing strollers.

One 2020 study asserts that older people who live in walkable, age-diverse neighborhoods are likeliest to live to age 100. Another says that the mere presence of younger individuals lengthens the lifespan of the elderly.

Civically, mixed neighborhoods can be more responsive neighborhoods. Young people often have little time or inclination to get involved in politics. People a little older are often wrapped up in family life. It’s frequently older people, free of work obligations, who become gadflies capable of attending time-consuming community meetings and the like, demanding officials pay attention to citizens’ concerns.

There’s an economic benefit to such commingling, too. Older people, who tend to be on fixed incomes and who are increasingly struggling with poverty, often don’t use the same services at the same times as younger people — so those interested in building rounded 15-minute communities are likelier to get them when all kinds of people are living in and around a given place. All of which means that neighborhoods with reasonably balanced numbers of young, old and middle-aged people are likely to have many markers of well-being: well-used parks, lively streets and sidewalks, active commercial strips and so on. 

Once a city decides that it places a high priority on mixing people at different life stages, the question becomes how best to do that. There are no easy solutions; first and foremost, older people, many of whom are on fixed incomes, need safe and affordable places to live. Sometimes that means creating more housing just for the elderly in otherwise diverse parts of cities, so people can get what they need without having to leave their neighborhoods or their cities entirely. Sometimes the answer is creating housing that goes out of its way to put different types of people in closer proximity to one another. And sometimes the answer is thinking much more intentionally about how to design communities for all. There’s no reason child-care centers, schools and senior centers shouldn’t find many more ways to connect and overlap.

If we agree that age diversity in our cities is a worthy goal, we need to start measuring it better so that we can know when we’re advancing it and when we’re slipping away.

Many cities aspire to attract young go-getters with disposable income. They simultaneously strive to be places where people can raise families and can grow old without being displaced. As our populations age, cities should strive to do all three things simultaneously, in a way that builds symbiotic communities in shared space. Four-generation cities will be more humane, rewarding and vibrant places for all.