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5 Great Places to Live

City living may cost a bit more, but urban communities deliver value in other ways.

If you ask people where they'd like to live when they retire, the vast majority of them will say, “Right here, of course.” In fact, according to the Census Bureau, fewer than 5 percent of people 55 and older move in any given year, and the bulk of those don’t go very far: 49 percent of movers stay within the same county, and only 25 percent move to a different state. Of those who do cross state lines, the major lure isn’t weather, tax relief, or a new adventure: people usually move to be closer to family.

“Upwards of 90 percent of people say they’d like to stay right in their own communities as they age,” says Robert H. McNulty, founder of Partners for Livable Communities, a nonprofit that works with cities to promote quality of life and social equality for all residents.

And therein lies the conundrum of communities across the country—how to provide services not just for young families but for empty nesters, active retirees, and everyone in between—so that older residents (and there are increasing numbers of them as boomers reach retirement age) are not a drain on a community’s resources but are an asset to them.

The places highlighted here are ahead of the curve. Yes, most of them are big cities, and cities do tend to have higher housing costs and taxes. But the tradeoff is that they have the resources to invest in the programs and services that make a place livable: mass-transit systems so people can drive less, expanded sidewalks to encourage walking, better health care, and a wide range of mixed-use housing.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA

Lifestyle vibe: Sophisticated metropolis with Southern charm
Fitness fix: Full-service health clubs in downtown condos
Retirees love: Abundant volunteer and cultural opportunities
Retirees hate: Sticky southern summers
Median housing price: $171,800
Average temperature: 43°F (January) and 80°F (July)

Donna Miller, 61, just loves urban life. “Cities are good for me,” says the retired librarian, who moved here from Old Greenwich, Connecticut, three years ago. “And Atlanta seemed perfect. It’s green, it’s pretty, and because it’s smaller than some cities, I thought I’d find it easier to insert myself into the community.” Best of all, Donna, a widow, has family here; a daughter and three grandchildren live in nearby Smyrna. So far, Atlanta has met all of Donna’s criteria for being a great place to live (and retire): she has made new friends, lives within easy walking distance of the High Museum of Art, where she is a docent, and is close to Emory University, where she also volunteers.

Such relocation success stories are the norm in Atlanta. In recent years it has been the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country, adding more than 890,000 new residents between 2000 and 2006. Its rapid growth—kicked off by the 1996 Olympics—has transformed the city. “I like to tell people that I grew up in a small railroad town but that since the Olympics, I’ve been living in an international city,” says Wicke Chambers, an Atlantan and author of Celebrate Retirement (Winslow Press, 2005).

Atlanta is also an increasingly older city. The Atlanta Regional Commission says that from 2000 to 2005 the older-adult population grew by 30.6 percent, more than double the growth rate of the total population (13.7 percent), and that by 2030 one in five residents will be 60 or older.

Atlanta has worked hard to manage this growth. Since 64 percent of those 55-plus say they’d like to stay in their homes as long as possible, the city has invested considerable resources in its Easy Living Home program.

In addition, Atlanta’s Livable Centers Initiative has invested more than $500 million to date to encourage the development of diverse housing types and pedestrian-friendly walkways. And the massive Atlantic Station project transformed 130 acres on the edge of downtown into a vibrant center with retail shops, restaurants, and housing for 10,000.

All of which makes the city increasingly attractive, not only to newcomers but to longtime residents as well. Greg Riggs, 59, former general counsel for Delta Airlines, and his wife, Kaye, 52, wondered if they should relocate after he retired—after all, their two girls were already in college. “We took about a year to think about it,” Greg recalls, “and we decided our lives were so rich here, it just didn’t make sense to go anywhere else.”

PORTLAND, OREGON

Lifestyle vibe: European charm meets environmental nirvana
Fitness fix: Miles of safe bike lanes
Retirees love: The Pearl District
Retirees hate: 155 rainy days a year
Median housing price: $280,800
Average temperatures: 39.9°F (January) and 68.1°F (July)

When Ralph Cohen, 58, retired from his engineering post at Intel several years ago, he and his wife, Alice Bergman, 51, had many conversations about what the next chapter of their lives would bring. She went back to school for a second master’s degree; he started building a wooden boat in his workshop; they bought a tandem bike. But they didn’t really think about moving: “Portland just has everything we need,” he says. “We like the nightlife. We like the theater. It’s got navigable water, which is really important to us. And while we’ve lived in many other places, and looked at other cities as possible retirement spots, including Olympia and Seattle, they just don’t have all the things that Portland has to offer.”

Ralph, an avid cyclist, still does some consulting, but he also volunteers at the Community Cycling Center, teaches occasionally at the community college, and plays in an orchestra. To him, nothing beats the view of Portland as he rides the hills just above town or tools down along the Columbia River. “So when we talk about what the future might look like,” he explains, “we think about things like stairs. We live in a split-level, and that will be a problem. At some point we’ll downsize but stay in Portland—I just can’t see us moving anywhere else.”

In fact, that’s exactly how Howard Shapiro, 76, and his wife Manya, 70, felt. Several years ago the couple sold their Portland duplex and bought a condominium in The Henry, arguably one of the “greenest” buildings ever designed, even in this environmentally progressive city. “All the water is recaptured, it’s heated with solar, and there’s no formaldehyde used in construction,” Howard says.

But The Henry’s main environmental contribution is also what makes it perfect for retirees: it’s set in the heart of the revitalized district known as the Pearl. “Everything we need is an easy walk, whether it’s the Whole Foods that’s one block over, great restaurants, movie theaters, or parks.” The couple recently sold their Prius and is down to one car, which, Howard admits, they seldom use.

In fact, if Portland has a calling card, says the Portland Housing Authority’s Steve Rudmond, it’s a community-wide commitment to alternative means of transportation. “The blocks are smaller, which adds to the European feel and makes walking places easier. And we’ve got good buses and a light-rail system. It does provide a competitive advantage.”

Howard sums it up in a single word: renaissance. “Portland is one of a few cities that’s really rethinking the way the world works, creating great architecture, and planning for the future,” he says. “Hopefully, long living comes out of that.”

CHANDLER, ARIZONA

Lifestyle vibe: Gracious desert living with an activist twist
Fitness fix: The 6.5-mile Paseo Trail
Retirees love: The get-involved spirit of the town
Retirees hate: Mass transit is improving, but you still need a car to get around
Median housing price: $297,900
Average temperatures: 56.1°F (January) and 94.8°F (July)

Chandler—one of the many suburbs spawned by the sprawl of Phoenix—may owe its appeal to being among the few cities in the Sun Belt that haven’t gone out of their way to court retirees. “One of our planning goals over the years has been to develop a complete, diverse, family-oriented city,” says Hank Pluster, Chandler’s planning manager.“While retirement communities have not been at the very top of the list, it may be that the very qualities of family living—well-designed neighborhoods, parks, open space, greenbelts for walking, recreation and education programs, plus attractive neighborhood centers and commercial areas—are the same things that induce current residents to age in place.”

Larry Arthington, 65, who moved here three years ago from Lexington, Kentucky, agrees. “The city is just very alive, and there’s so much energy here,” he says. “I’m a 65-year-old dude who recently joined a college marching band.” (He plays the euphonium.) “How cool is that?”

But Chandler’s biggest selling point, he says, is its always-thinking-ahead city government. There’s the Congress of Neighborhoods: community forums aimed at creating sustainable neighborhoods. And then there’s the Boomerang Project—a partnership started specifically “to respond to the unique aging trends of boomers”—which offers career coaching, grandparenting support, and health and wellness classes.

As in other cities in the Southwest, housing costs are sky-high, and cars are still a must. But the city is addressing its transportation issues by increasing funding for its cab-coupon and dial-a-ride programs, as well as extending bus routes.

The main drag is the Paseo Trail, a 6.5-mile recreational path that runs along the banks of the Consolidated Canal. With plenty of room for walkers, runners, bikers, and horses, the trail, which is lit at night, offers access to parks and neighborhoods. In fact, Prevention magazine recently voted Chandler among the ten best towns in the nation for walking.

Walt Franz, 62, and his wife, Carol, 60, moved to Chandler from New Jersey seven years ago and love their new lifestyle: with Chandler’s 330 sunny days a year, they take three-mile walks every day and golf often. And when grandkids come to visit? There’s always digging for dinosaur bones or climbing on statues of giant Gila monsters at the local playground. In other words: there’s something in Chandler for everyone.

 

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

Lifestyle vibe: Historically genteel, especially in Beacon Hill
Fitness fix: Strolling on the Boston Common
Retirees love: Abundance of culture and restaurants
Retirees hate: High housing costs
Median housing price: $402,200
Average temperature: 29°F (January) and 74°F (July)

Don't get Susan McWhinney-Morse started on the reasons not to retire in Boston. “With all the hills, there’s too much up and down. The cobblestones are hard to walk on. It’s cold and slippery in the winters. There’s nowhere to park. It’s very expensive.” And while all those things may very well be true, Susan, 73, concedes, “I’ve lived on Beacon Hill for 40 years and raised my children here. I love city living, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Check out AARP Bulletin Online’s state-by-state guides to:

·         Transportation Assistance

·         Pharmacy-Assistance Programs

·         HMO Report Cards Online

·         Energy- and Weatherization-Assistance Programs

·         Nursing Home Performance Data

So in 2002 Susan and a group of neighbors launched Beacon Hill Village (BHV) to provide a network of support services for aging residents. For an annual fee ($580 per person, $780 per household, or a low-income rate of $100) anyone 50 or older can join the Beacon Hill collective, which helps members find “everything from hospice care to a symphony ticket,” says Judy Willett, BHV’s executive director.

Other amenities for the 400-plus members include regular rides to the grocery store, cheap rides to the doctor, and access to personal trainers and fitness classes, lectures, and field trips.

David Arnold, 84, and his wife, Dorothy, 83, sold their home in Concord, Massachusetts, and moved to Beacon Hill ten years ago. Dorothy rents a studio, where she paints; David is still close enough to the mountains to ski frequently, and he regularly rows on the Charles River.

Nor is the city turning its back on its low-income elderly. The city operates five fitness centers that are available to older adults at no charge. And its Lapham Park Venture has won national attention: residents of the nine-story public housing project—96 percent African American and 56 percent women—needed plenty of nursing care. To help them stay in their homes, the city added several case managers on-site, as well as a health clinic, an exercise room, a beauty salon, a movie house, and a community dining room. The result? A savings of $1 million annually in Medicaid nursing home costs—and hundreds of at-risk seniors who are able to continue living in their own homes.

For black-and-white reprints of this article call 866-888-3723.

Additional photo credits: Atlanta's Atlantic Station crafts fair by Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn; Portland's Pearl district by Martin Thiel; Chandler's Paseo Trail by David B. Moore; Boston's Beacon Hill by Anthony Tieuli; Milwaukee river walk by James Schnepf.

Whether you're looking for a place to retire or simply seeking new surroundings, our interactive Location Scout—designed especially for AARP The Magazine readers—can help you find the perfect place. It's free and easy to use.

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