Quantifying our Downtown Home: Downtown Practitioners’ Review of AARP’s Livability Index

Review By Larisa Ortiz, Principal of Larisa Ortiz Associates and Kris Larson, CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids

June 2015

AARP Livability Index

Is your community a “great neighborhood for all ages?” That’s what AARP wants you to find out using a new “Livability Index,” which scores neighborhoods and communities across the US for the services and amenities that make for a good place to live. AARP states that as the U.S. population ages, people will benefit from a tool to help them figure out a place to land in retirement, and communities will need a tool to design interventions that will better meet the needs of an aging population.

AARP’s Livability Index is a tool that measures livability at the neighborhood level for the entire country, and while other tools such as Walkscore and Placeilive can offer additional insights into a place, this tool is specifically designed with older users in mind. When cities are planned for older Americans, often, everyone benefits. For example, the organization “8-80 Cities” in Canada believes that successful places are those designed for both 8-year olds and 80-year olds.

To create the index, AARP surveyed 4,500 Americans 50 and older to determine the most important community characteristics. Out of that came seven categories that take into account 60 different factors:

  • Housing affordability as measured by housing cost burdens and the availability of subsidized housing;
  • Neighborhood quality as measured by safety metrics and vacancy rates, as well as proximity to grocery stores, parks, libraries jobs, etc.;
  • Alternative transportation options that connect people to social activities, economic opportunities and health care;
  • Environmental conditions, including air and water quality, as well as resiliency plans that incorporate disaster recovery and energy efficiency;
  • Health access, as measured by access to exercise options, health care availability, access to healthy food;
  • Civic engagement, including residents ability to reduce social isolation through community engagement, measured by voting rates, number of cultural/arts institutions and organizations and access to internet;
  • Employment opportunities.

What is nice about the tool is that it allows individuals to customize their preferences. So while a high walkability scores might be a good indicator of quality of life for some, for others is might signal “too dense for my taste.” This is when a user could focus on health access or employment opportunities, for example.

As this tool focuses on important factors to those 50 years and older, there is an opportunity for other research to supplement this tool with data about other demographics. For example, the Millennial cohort (ages 18-34) will surpass the Baby Boomers (51 – 69) in size – 75.3 million compared to 74.9 million. This population will soon (and already are) having children of their own, and metrics that matter to these folks, including but not limited to the quality of the local school system which will become an increasingly important metric in their residential location decisions. What will millennials do when they start to have kids? Will our downtowns provide the amenities to keep them? Perhaps other organizations could collect data on metrics such as graduation rates, test sources, teacher to student ratios, and other variables to complete the picture of “livability.”

What does this mean for downtowns? Organizations in the downtown placemaking industry could use this Livability Tool as a supplement for their own qualitative and quantitative data, backing up the on-the-ground knowledge and expertise they work on day-in and day-out. If an area has invested heavily in parks over the last few years, this tool may reflect such an investment, adding another level of credibility and measurement to their work. The tool also highlights existing policies in place that relate to livability, and simply being aware of such policies is a helpful reminder to think outside of typical silos when it comes to policymaking, grants, or programs.

Overall, when one zooms out of the tool, it becomes clear that downtown centers are ranked as some of the most “liveable” areas in the country, which isn’t surprising given the strong bones of a downtown built environment with a density of services, walkability, urban parks, access to transit, access to employment and other indicators. “Livability” actually highlights many features that become synonymous with downtowns and tools like this can help downtown practitioners further highlight the important work they do, but this time, under the umbrella of “livability.”

For Downtown practitioners, this mechanism provides an unpacking of many of the attributes that define the livability of our urban neighborhoods. On the commercial side, simple metrics such as lease variables and occupancy rates have traditionally provided us with litmus-like indicators for business district heath. Meanwhile empty nesters have flown back into our urban centers in search of proximity to culture, recreation, and car-lite lifestyles. While urban lifestyle choice has been en vogue for nearly a decade, our ability to measure the relative residential accommodation that our districts provide to has escaped our direct reach. The AARP Livability Index takes an important step forward in defining focus areas for neighborhood development. 

We all have personal associations with the word “home.” It has a sensory connotation wrought with emotion, memory, and comfort. As we think about making our Downtowns feel more like home to multiple generations, the Index provides practitioners with a short list of attributes that may be immediately achievable, such as civic engagement, with others that might require concerted, coordinated efforts, such as access to transit. In either case, the IDA member is provided a spectrum of areas of focus for building a more livable Downtown. As a practitioner, I would encourage others to see reflect on the needs of our various urban neighborhoods and use the tool as a mechanism to assist in strategic decision making. Whether policy or placemaking, the tool provides us with a useful reminder that to many, our Downtowns are home.