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How to Make Land-Use Policies Better for Women, Families, Caregivers and Older Adults

So many aspects of daily life could be less time-consuming and less stressful, says urban planning professor Mildred Warner, if our spaces and places were more smartly defined

Woman In Kitchen, Baking, 1950s, Domestic Goddess, Gender Roles, Mildred Warner Interview

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Family life and gender roles have changed since the 1950s. Many land-use and zoning policies have not.

When Mildred Warner's first child was born in 1990, she discovered that her upstate New York community — like many communities both then and now — didn't have a sufficient supply of affordable, high-quality child care.

"I wondered, 'How could this happen? How could a critical support for working parents be ignored?'" she recalls.

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So a few years later, the Cornell University professor of city and regional planning, and mother of two, began working to help communities nationwide integrate child care into their economic development plans. Warner soon realized that older adults and their caregivers faced similar challenges. Many of the features recommended by experts for how to make communities more livable for senior citizens are important for families with young children as well. — Interview as told to Sally Abrahms

At an AARP session 10 years ago, Warner realized that most elements that make a community a good place for aging in place also make it a good place to raise children. Warner's Planning Across Generations project helps communities plan for the needs of the aging and the young.

1. What is the connection between age and gender and how communities have developed over the past several decades?

We tend to ignore both age and gender. Over the decades, communities have developed with a focus on segregating housing from commercial uses, with attention given to the role of the commuting worker. There's been far less focus on the basic needs of everyday life — such as mobility for getting to the store or the doctor, for child care, integrated living and access to services.

This segregation has created special challenges for women but now, with an aging society, also older people. The importance of recognizing these groups is now being acknowledged.

2. How have age and gender been impacted by zoning laws and economic development?

Our zoning guidelines have traditionally promoted segregated land use, making it much more difficult for women, children and seniors to get between home and work and home and school or child care. It doesn't have to be that way.

New approaches to planning are focusing more on integrating these functions. Beyond allowing child care in residential areas, planners are paying attention to walkability and Complete Streets features. This kind of planning encourages the integration, rather than separation, of activities. It mixes uses and eases access by integrating services — restaurants, grocery stores and doctors' offices — with nearby residential districts.  

Fifteen years ago, when I started working on child care, I discovered there was a blindness in economic policy and practice about it. Child care, like much household work — cleaning, cooking, taking care of family members — may be paid or unpaid. While the work is fundamental to human well-being, it is often ignored in economic planning.

But as people get older and may no longer work in the formal economy, they are still working in the informal "caring economy." We don't think, at the community level, about what we can do to support this caring economy. When we start to think about elders, we are thinking about the issues women have always faced.

Women Face A Triple Burden, Infographic, Mildred Warner Interview

Courtesy A.C. Micklow

Zoning that separates where we work, live and shop often places employed parents and adult children caring for their own parents far from where they need to be.

3. Now that you've raised the need to recognize age and gender, how have the professionals involved in planning and land-use decisions reacted?

They're really excited about incorporating aging and gender into their plans. They find it liberating to focus not just on the needs of the worker but on all age groups. After all, we all have parents and many of us have kids so we know the challenges.

There's a really positive turn that is happening right now. Planners are imagining things differently and focusing on a lifecycle approach. Think about it. We are all born. We all need certain things as a small child, teenager, young adult, young family, empty nester, person living alone, older adult. So let's plan for everyone along that life cycle.

That we are an aging society opens up opportunities for us all to think about what makes a community where you would want to age in place or raise young children. It could be slowing traffic speeds; having benches to rest during a walk; more public restrooms; wider sidewalks; paths for walkers, bicycles and trikes. It would also include a wider array of housing options, economic development policy that incorporates care work and more opportunities for citizen engagement and encouraging intergenerational programming.

4. How is it that out-of-step zoning laws made decades ago for a Leave It to Beaver nuclear family and stay-at-home mom in the suburbs are still in place?

The answer is inertia. The rules get written and we add to them but rarely go back. Familiarity breeds comfort, e.g., "That's the way things are supposed to be, because that's the way they have always been." What we're asking for is a shift in the way we think a road should be, for instance, so it's not only just for a car, but perhaps also for an adult walker or child on a bike.

In some Main Street corridors you couldn't live on the second floor over a store. The rule against it was part of the fire code. But in larger cities, people do it all the time. If we want walkability in downtown rural communities, we need to allow people to live and populate the second floor. Some rural communities now allow this. The aging tsunami is giving us an opportunity to imagine things differently.

5. What would you advise a community that wants to begin implementing more age-friendly zoning and planning policies?

I'd say they should think about whether their zoning and planning are meeting the needs of current residents rather than historical rules. My guess is that they probably want to allow mixed use commercial and residential development. And what about transportation policy? Is it supporting comprehensive mobility and not just commuting?

There needs to be access for the young, the old and the disabled — not just for the able bodied. We need to plan for all segments of the community.

We also need to think about a less restrictive family definition or eliminating family definitions altogether. Who are we to decide what constitutes a household or a family? Is it really appropriate for planning and zoning to restrict how people live together? In some places there are still restrictions on the books that no more than three unrelated people can live together. But if we want to encourage "Golden Girls" housing, or house sharing, we need to change those codes. We need to think, "Why were these rules put into place, and are they appropriate now?"

Planning Across Generations, Illustration, Mildred Warner Interview

Image courtesy Mildred Warner

Planning Across Generations

Professor Warner is the author of more than 100 articles and reports about community planning, restructuring local government and creating communities for people of all ages, genders and life stages. Here, two samplings from her writing on these topics:

From "Not Your Mother’s Suburb: Remaking Communities for a More Diverse Population" (with A.C. Micklow)

"The physical design of a community represents a moment in time that is continually reevaluated by subsequent inhabitants. At present, the American suburb is experiencing a demographic transformation with increases in singles, elders, and multi-generational and ethnic households. These demographic changes illustrate the tensions that arise when a space is inhabited by a new set of residents for which it was not originally planned."

From "Collaboration: The Key to Building Communities for All Generations" (with Min Koung Choi)

"As America faces the 'silver tsunami' of a growing aging population, it also faces a challenge to invest in children. Both groups make special demands on local government for education, housing, and community services. They also require that more careful attention be given to the built environment and transportation systems to ensure accessibility for people of all ages. The needs of children and elders have traditionally been addressed primarily through age-segregated programs. But fiscal constraints require local governments to look for more efficiencies, which may be achieved through integrated programs. In addition, new research points to the positive impacts of intergenerational programming, especially in recreation and social services, to improve outcomes for children and seniors alike."

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Land-use rules directly impact how we live. Learn more about how zoning and permission to add secondary ("accessory") dwellings on single-family lots can help make communities livable for people of all ages.

Published September 2016

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