Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Planning for Boomers: Here is why it matters and what to do about it

This post is the first a series that will attempt to illuminate how major demographic shifts will drive downtown retail and urban planning design decisions for decades to come.

    Sidewalk benches provide respite for older shoppers. Photo Credit: LOA
Today we talk about the Baby Boomers – those who at the time of this writing are 53 or older. While Millennials grab most of the attention these days, the truth is that when it comes to disposable income, Boomers still have more purchasing clout. Younger Boomers are also still in their peak earning years and continue to lead active lifestyles. But change is coming. In ten years, these younger Boomers will be 63. While still active, many will begin to seek environments that accommodate their changing lifestyles – kids out of the house, retirement looming and more leisure time.

The good news is that Boomers, unlike Millennials, still prefer in-store shopping. According to Chain Store Age, a 2016 study found that 84% of Boomers still prefer to shop in-store. While we know on-line shopping habits are changing quickly, this demographic still retains loyalty to brick and mortar experiences. So ensuring downtown remains a viable and attractive location for Boomers to shop and spend their leisure time should be a no-brainer.

Simple things like awnings help shelter
older customers from the elements. Photo Credit: LOA

Yet as retail futurist and author of The Retail Revival, Doug Stephens states so plainly, “physical constraints are an inevitable part of aging.” He also makes clear that the old ways of doing business will need to adapt to the changing needs of this powerful demographic group. Unfortunately, many communities are willfully ignoring this trend. In one community we recently surveyed, a business owner dismissed the “busloads of older visitors to town” who “do nothing to help the local economy.” According to the business owner, these visitors walk around without spending money. His comment was in response to a suggestion that the town explore accommodating and transporting the more than 3,000 annual river cruise passengers up from the waterfront to downtown - an uphill walk unlikely to appeal to many passengers. Yet these are passengers who pay on average $400 - $500 per person, per night for their cruise experience. Downtown retailers can ill afford to so readily dismiss a group of individuals with significant discretionary resources.

Another planning theorist, Gil Penalosa has expressed this concern in a different way. His “8 to 80” concept offers up the idea that cities should be designed to accommodate people of all ages, from the ages of well, 8 to 80. In general the principles behind these design accommodations for older adults will ultimately make the downtown shopping experience more pleasurable for people of all ages. So this is not about designing something “special” for a small subset of the shopper base. As George Branyan at the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation states, "If we can design for the most vulnerable street users and those with the most specific needs, then we’ve made streets safe for them and everything in between.”
This looks like a "do", but the small size,
hard to read font and high-placement
make it hard for drivers to see
. Photo credit: LOA 
    It comes down to this, downtown stands to grow its customer base if it addresses the needs of aging Boomers. One opportunity involves helping Boomers find environments that allow them to both downsize AND live in environments where they can be less car dependent without losing independence. Walkable downtown environments offer this opportunity – while also ensuring an ability to maintain an active lifestyle and take advantage of essential needs - even when things like driving at night become more and more of a challenge.

    Moving forward, downtown planners will have to address the basics – things like the size and visibility of signs and the fonts that are used, places to sit, and traffic lights timed for faster walkers. This will mean providing more time to cross wide streets and making sure curbs are not too steep between the sidewalk and street. A number of cities are pursuing what they call “Safe Senior” initiatives, including Portland and New York. These kinds of efforts will provide the foundation for the growing senior communities fueled by the Boomers.

    The co-location of businesses helps older
    customers who are unlikely to walk long distances. Photo Credit: LOA 
    Below are some practical strategies for simple, targeted safety improvements that downtowns should consider as they plan major capital improvements last will last the next 10-20 years.

    Ease of Access
    • Make downtown offerings more compact. Downtown stores should be co-located and allow for ease of shopping from one business to another.
    • Ease of navigation. Work to strengthen the proximity of offerings and reduce the “friction” between stores. This means making a street easier to cross (i.e. mid-block crossings). Older adults may be resistant to walking down a long street in order to cross safely at the corner – particularly when the weather is inclement.
    • Wayfinding signage that is easy to spot and read is critical to helping both visitors and older adults find their way around downtown. This is particularly true when downtown parking lots are located behind the stores. The only people who know the parking is back there are regulars.

    • More downtown housing. As fewer and fewer baby boomers drive, downtown housing is a natural fit. It offers a mix of smaller units and density that allows them to take care of shopping needs without driving – which will become another reality as they age.
    • This walkway to rear downtown
      parking receives star treatment
      through murals that enliven the space. Photo credit: LOA 
    • Support for ridesharing options to help them get to and/from downtown. This is particularly important as downtown becomes a place to eat and dine. Older adults often have limited visibility at night, so safe rides, particularly after drinking, are important safety concern for all.


    • Benches for respite. Preferably facing the sidenot, or placed against a storefront
    • Trees that provide relief from hotter temperatures
    • Awnings to protect slow walkers from the elements
    • Lighting that allows older people to see where they are going – especially at night. Many downtown streets lack appropriate pedestrian lightings. Moreover, windows are either covered with grates or the display lights for windows are shut off in the evening.
    • Signs with larger font sizes. Also, these signs should not be placed too high. Seniors (and children!) have lower gazes.
    • Pedestrian signs (blade/banner signs in particular) to allow customers to see stores from a distance (and make decisions about whether they should walk further).
      Trees help provide shade and cool down a sidewalk,
      making for more comfortable walking environment. Photo Credit: LOA

    Pedestrian Safety
    • This walkway is the only connection between a parking area and
      the Main Street. Pedestrians are forced to
      walk on the street in conflict with car entering the lot. Photo Credit: LOA 
      Walkways to parking areas.
      In many traditional and historic downtowns, parking can be found behind the buildings. The walkways to those parking areas need to be well maintained and feel safe for pedestrians. Older shoppers in particular will likely have concerns over uneven asphalt or lack of a sidewalk for safe walking to/from their cars. 
    • Respite islands in the middle of the street to account for slower walking pace. Even if walking signals are timed to allow for a slower gait, some seniors may not be able to cross in time.
    • Maintenance of flat sidewalks – no bricks – to prevent falls. Maintenance of cracks to prevent falls.
    • Improved shoveling and ice removal to prevent falls
    • Opportunities and activities that encourage socialization – it’s not always about shopping. In fact, a visit downtown will rarely ever meet the majority of a family’s shopping needs.


    1. Really nice post. Yes, indeed, Boomers are a much better market segment than Millennials for downtown retailers, eateries and entertainment venues to focus on, but they do not have the same sorts of needs and preferences that they did when they were 20 years younger. Merchants must adapt to that fact.

    2. Thanks! One counterfact is that spending drops after 50 - so we can’t forget younger folks either. We’ll tackle that question in a future post!