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Livable Communities in New York

Suffolk County is the first county in New York and the third in the nation to pass a law requiring universal design.


  • Suffolk County incorporates universal design.
  • Erie County is first to embrace redesigned streets.
  • One in five New Yorkers will be over 65 by 2030.

Architect Glen Cherveny was “dragged kicking and screaming”into a meeting of Accessible Long Island last year.

The coalition of builders, planners and community organizers promotes the use of universal design in new and renovated homes and buildings. Cherveny had never thought much about accessibility issues, but after a few meetings he became a convert.

“Now I put myself in the place of people who have trouble getting around and who really benefit from those things,” he said. Building codes don’t require accessibility features for aging or disabled people, but the Commack architect urges builders to add them anyway. “I’ll be pushing for 100 percent.”

The aging population requires new thinking by builders and planners. By 2030, the Administration on Aging projects 20 percent of New Yorkers will be over age 65. In fact, studies suggest that one in four houses will, at some point, have a resident with a long-term mobility impairment.

Suffolk County is the first county in New York and the third in the nation to pass a law requiring housing built with tax dollars to incorporate universal design. Four Long Island towns—Islip, Southampton, Riverhead and Huntington—have adopted incentives, such as lower permit fees, to encourage builders to make new homes accessible.

Simply put, universal design means:

  • an entrance that is free of steps or has a ramp;
  • wider doorways for easy maneuvering;
  • a bedroom and full bathroom with reinforced walls on the first floor.

Universal design is part of a two-pronged AARP initiative to encourage livable communities.

“Livable communities are places where people of all ages and abilities have housing options and travel choices that keep them safe and comfortable in their homes and communities for as long as possible,” said Will Stoner, associate state director for community outreach for AARP New York.

The second piece is the concept of “complete streets.” The goal is to make neighborhood streets safe, comfortable and convenient for pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation riders as well as motorists. In a recent AARP survey, 40 percent of people over age 50 reported inadequate sidewalks in their neighborhoods, and half said they cannot safely cross main roads close to their home. Fatality rates for older pedestrians are far higher in New York City and nearby counties than the rest of the country, according to a study by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

In Westchester County, AARP worked with the department of aging to create livable community councils that are auditing pedestrian safety at key intersections. A similar effort is under way in Rockland County. And Erie County is the first county in the state to adopt complete streets, serving as a model for other counties across New York and the nation.

AARP is also pushing for complete streets at the state legislature with a bill that would provide safe access for all—bicyclists, pedestrians, public transportation users and drivers. If passed, New Yorkers could expect improvements such as paved shoulders, crosswalks, pedestrian signals, ramps and accommodations for travelers of all ages and abilities.

Despite the obvious need for builders and planning boards to think ahead to accommodate the aging population, the AARP survey revealed that nearly two-thirds of planners and engineers have not yet begun considering the needs of older users. Nor, for that matter, are many people thinking about making changes in their home to accommodate current and future mobility needs.

“Given the time it takes to implement many of these changes, it makes sense to start now,” Cherveny said.

Marilynn Larkin is a freelance writer/editor based in New York City.

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