Photo by The Alliance for Biking and Walking on Flickr.

The AARP is one of the nation’s largest lobbies, spending over $20 million per year on lobbying.  The AARP also supports livable communities. So why is advocacy for livable communities heroically carried out by small non-profits that few have heard of?

This asymmetry between the advocates for urbanism and urbanism’s actual constituency is largely responsible for stereotypes of smart growth advocates as young hipsters.

I have a dear, 80-year-old aunt in Nashville who had a stroke last year that has kept her from driving.  A widow, she maintained an active life attending concerts and sports events and going out to dinner.  She now spends most days alone at home watching television because there’s nothing to walk to.

What is her lobby doing to advocate for her and the millions of elderly Americans whose engagement with life ceased when they could no longer drive?

AARP’s “Six-Point Action Plan” (large PDF, see p. 94) for livable communities includes the following policy priorities.

  • Localities should remove zoning barriers to such housing alternatives as accessory apartments and shared housing.
  • Localities should carefully consider efficient mixed-use development to reduce distances between residences, shopping sites, recreation, health care facilities, and other community features. Zoning requirements should be reviewed in this context.
  • State and local jurisdictions should create or adapt complete public transportation systems designed to meet the needs and preferences of diverse community residents, and communities should coordinate all agencies with an interest in transportation and the infrastructure that supports transportation.
  • State and local jurisdictions should design and retrofit the travel environment for walking and bicycling for safety, connectivity, and accessibility.

While it makes sense that these would be priorities for the nation’s seniors, that the AARP agrees would surprise those who have testified before local and state bodies in support of these exact policies.  Opponents of these AARP positions are usually eligible to be AARP members, while advocates are more often not.

When the AARP takes a position on an issue, they represent over 40 million seniors.  Furthermore, Census data indicates that the population of those 65 and older will increase 33% from 2005-2020. 

Advocates with this sizable constituency would be influential in the local and state debates that determine whether communities are livable or are single-use, car-dependent bedroom communities.

The AARP is right to make livable communities a policy priority, but it is unclear what they are actually doing to advance this priority.  As the size of the nation’s elderly community continues to grow, let’s hope that the AARP puts their money where their mouth is in advocating for their interests in livable communities.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.