Traditional living, with a slightly modern twist

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

"It is the closest we could get to what we left behind," says John Hopton about retiring in a traditional neighborhood development, or TND, in Lynchburg, Va.

TNDs are a modern interpretation of an old idea: the self-contained neighborhood or small town with mixed housing types and diverse populations - much like a Norman Rockwell painting brought to life. They are characterized by high- density building; small lot sizes; and a walkable, compact size. They also feature commercial and civic components, so residents can buy what they need and take part in community activities without leaving the neighborhood.

Mr. Hopton and his wife, Ruth, live in a TND called Wyndhurst. He grew up in a small village in England, and fondly recalls the lifestyle. "Growing up, we walked to the pub, to the cafe. [You walked] to get your groceries every day." The Hoptons had dreamed of being able to retire in such a setting, and when the Wyndhurst project broke ground, they were one of the first home buyers.

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Retirees like the Hoptons represent a noticeable proportion of TND residents across the United States. At Wyndhurst open houses over the past three years, about 25 percent of potential buyers have been retirees, says real estate broker Steve Burkett.

Reports from Westhaven, a TND just outside Nashville, Tenn., estimate that about 35 percent of its residents are retirees.

People in their 50s through 90s like living in TNDs for the same reasons as other age groups. But some advantages are more significant to seniors, who don't want to be isolated or inactive:

• Diversity. An intergenerational environment provides stimulation and interaction.

• Walkability. Walkable neighborhoods encourage exercise.

• Sociability. Houses close to the street, close to each other, and with front porches create a more social environment.

• Independence. Being able to walk to stores and public places allows seniors to remain independent when they no longer drive.

• Safety. Because neighbors have diverse schedules, someone tends to be outdoors at practically any hour. This makes residents feel more secure.

The trend of retiring in a TND is "absolutely new," says architect Glen Tipton, director of senior living projects for CSD Architects in Baltimore. It makes sense, he says, because fewer retirees want to live in seniors-only retirement communities, which "lack an integration between home and community."

TNDs, he adds, are replicating the home community retirees don't want to leave behind, or, in the case of the Hoptons, a community to which they've longed to return.

Instant friends

Louis Joyner, who's in his 50s and semiretired, moved to the I'On community three years ago. This upscale TND is located near Charleston, S.C. He likes living in a neighborhood where he's surrounded by people of many age groups.

"I couldn't even comprehend living in a situation without all ages," he says. "I am interacting with 20-year-olds and 80-year-olds, just by being out walking. My wife and I have friends [who have] 2-year-olds."

For Mr. Joyner, another advantage of living at I'On is the opportunity it presents to become acquainted with his neighbors - such as at the community mailbox area. After they had moved in, "It was amazing how quickly we met people," he says.

Diane and Tom Kroll were similarly surprised when they took up residence in the Harbor Town TND in Memphis, Tenn. "There were lots of overtures to meet us," he says. "Suddenly ... [we] were part of a community."

Living in Harbor Town has given the Krolls a new identity. "At community parties, the first question isn't 'Where do you work?' " says Mr. Kroll. "You're not identified by what you do, but where you live."

Sarah Holt of Holt & Everhart Companies is one of the developers of Fairview Village, a nine-year-old TND located not far from Portland, Ore. She is concerned that mainstream developers are not building communities that encourage diverse populations, including seniors.

TNDs, on the other hand, typically have a range of house sizes and prices, letting people whose circumstances change - children leaving home, retirement - move to another home in the same neighborhood.

Ms. Holt, who lived in Fairview Village for five years, has observed firsthand the effects of walkable community design on seniors who don't drive.

She tells the story of a widower, wheelchair-bound, who lived in a "carriage house" apartment over his son's garage. Using an interior lift to navigate his stairs, the older man independently wheeled himself to and from the town square, the coffee shop, the library, and a favored spot near a deli, where he held court.

The ability to move around independently is a powerful influence on a senior's ability to thrive, experts agree. As a 2001 MIT AgeLab report puts it, "To people of all ages, transportation becomes the glue that makes all the little and large activities of a quality life possible.... Healthy aging, not just longer life, is the capacity to visit a friend, to see a movie, decide in the morning to get a haircut, to see a grandchild, or to simply get out."

A planning team in Oshkosh, Wis., is taking the TND concept even further, calling for a "Living, Learning, and Serving Community." The proposal for the LLSC incorporates education into its mix: "The neighborhood would include on-site university services and programs to support lifelong learning activities."

The LLSC can be an alternative to "gated golf ghettos" and other retirement settings that isolate seniors from the mainstream community, says David Green, president and CEO of Evergreen Retirement Community in Oshkosh. He is a member of the LLSC planning team, along with a local developer, and representatives from the University of Wisconsin and the city of Oshkosh.

"These retirees are the people that society needs. And they need society to reach their potential," he says.

"The compact, walkable settlement pattern, with a mix of uses and a variety of housing types, is ideal for older households," says Todd Zimmerman of Zimmerman/Volk Associates, commenting on analyses his firm has conducted on new traditional neighborhoods and urban residential neighborhoods [more than 200 in 42 states to date].

Mr. Zimmerman supports the idea of retirement within a multigenerational setting. "Even dressed up in traditional neighborhood design," he says, "the age- homogenous retirement development is ultimately a sterile environment that isolates seniors from life's challenges and delights."

Not universally popular

TNDs are not for everyone, however. Mr. Burkett, the real estate broker, says this type of development doesn't appeal to people who don't like to live close to others and prefer more space between homes. Another drawback for some, he says, is that TNDs offer larger public spaces, not larger individual yards.

Other considerations include:

• Cost. Even though TND homes have small lots, they cost the same or more than comparable suburban homes.

• Too much sociability. "It would be harder to be a hermit [at I'On]," says Mr. Joyner. He believes there is a certain self-selection of population that occurs in a TND. Those who prefer to keep to themselves tend to buy homes elsewhere.

• Limited age-sensitive housing options. Do the homes have multiple stories, or is the living space all on one level? Burkett says that house style was an issue initially for Wyndhurst, until older buyers started requesting housing plans that offered main-floor bedrooms along with upstairs guest rooms.

• Community regulations. "We have some pretty strict regulations," says Mrs. Kroll of Harbor Town. A hot- button topic? "Almost every newsletter has an article about dogs."

• Works-in-progress. TNDs are planned as complete neighborhoods, with commercial and civic components. But it may take years for the entire community to be built. The Wyndhurst community was begun three years ago, but the retail stores and offices have only recently begun to take shape.

• Geographic location. Although the number of TNDs under development is accelerating, they are still few and far between. The Hoptons had considered moving out of state, hours away from their children, just to live in a TND. They were delighted when one opened in their area.

A new model

While regular TNDs are popular with seniors, new models - aimed especially at older residents - are evolving. The LLSC plans include a continuing-care component. Wyndhurst "offers the best of both worlds - a retirement community integrated within a TND," says Mr. Tipton, the architect.

The Summit, a "continuing care retirement community," was part of the original Wyndhurst master plan. The facility - which offers independent living, assisted living, and nursing care - is located directly across the street from Wyndhurst's town center and shops. The YMCA is just three blocks away.

Proximity to the rest of the TND has allowed Tenho Jackson, who's in his late 80s and lives in the Summit, to continue to be active. He walks three miles a day, sometimes twice a day, throughout the community. "This is an ideal location to walk without [obstacles that] make it difficult...," he says.

The Wyndhurst planning team had people like Mr. Jackson in mind. "The city [of Lynchburg] promised me that they would set the traffic lights for an 80-year-old," says the Rev. Ken Burger, the Summit's executive director.

Jackson and his wife have only to walk across the street for services such as an eye doctor, a gift store, and a coffee shop.

This holds great appeal for Joyner and many other retirees who look to TNDs to enable them to be active and independent as they get older. As he observes, "People are living longer - but they're living better longer."

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