In his new book, Deane Simpson, an architect who teaches at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, chronicles the rise of communities built for older people—not the infirm elderly, but the active or “young-old.” Demographic and political forces have combined to create this new life phase, also known as the Third Age—when people are retired yet in relatively good health, roughly from ages 55 to 75. In Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society (Lars Müller Publishers, 2015), Simpson deciphers the appeal, the unusual urban logic, and the future of these communities, from a Dutch-style retiree village in Japan to the dispersed, mobile communities of American RV drivers.
Why were you drawn to young-old communities as a research topic?
It started on a road trip in the southern states of the U.S. that I went on with some fellow students in 1997. One evening we ended up in a bar in St. Petersburg, Fla., and we were the youngest there by about 40 years or so. We were given some really unwelcoming stares. It was this very strange domination of an area by what felt like, at the time, a singular age group. I became very intrigued by this social and spatial condition, where the rules of what I was normally used to were put aside.
Arizona’s Youngtown (1954) and Sun City (1960) were the first large-scale active retirement communities. How did they set the pattern for those that followed?
Youngtown introduced a structural framework for age segregation. Sun City developed that into a new scale, approaching the scale of a city. The other key aspect of Sun City is that it brought a shift from the idea of selling houses to, instead, what I would consider urban lifestyle products. It’s not just about a house to live in—it’s a larger structure that has spatial and temporal elements. It is spatial in the sense that it encompasses a comprehensive environment for pursuing leisure: clubhouses, sports facilities, golf courses, and so forth. And in the temporal sense, these programs are designed to discipline leisure time.
I was really struck by the role of golf in young-old urbanism. In many of the places you describe, tees and greens organize the landscape; the network of golf-cart roadways in the Villages, in Florida, is almost 90 miles long. Why is golf so integral to these communities when, as you note, many residents don’t even play?
In places like the Costa del Sol in Spain, it is surprising—the sheer extent and intensity of golf in the environment. It’s also interesting how it has become an economic instrument. In the case of the Costa del Sol, there was a political decision at a certain moment to stabilize the seasonal tourist economy through golf. It was intended to punch up the sales of homes but also to attract tourists in the wintertime for year-round golf. The golf courses would produce a second coastline, a green coastline. In that sense it becomes a kind of land speculation instrument. For people who don’t play golf and also those who do play, they see golf as a kind of brand, a symbol of affluence, prestige, and status.
At the Villages, there’s a large proportion of residents who don’t golf but who ride around in these golf carts. There, it’s become a branding technique for another kind of mobility that’s presented as fun and playful. It’s an alternative to the automobile, which is associated more with the drudgery of commuting. In the case of the Villages, the golf cart is represented as an object of liberation.
From Florida to Spain to Japan, amusement-park-style “theming” is a major design strategy in young-old communities. It produces environments that seem paradoxical: British retirees in Spain seek out a faux architectural style because of its supposed authenticity, and the Villages touts itself as a “hometown” despite being the hometown of no one at all (since it’s restricted to people 55 and over). What are the dynamics at work here—surely there’s more to this than pure escapism?
These are sites that are rich in paradoxes and contradictions. On the Costa del Sol, theming reinforces the exoticism of the “permanent vacation.” It’s exotic, but familiar enough that a newcomer can also navigate within it: There’s the Irish pub or the British supermarkets, the global accessible interfaces such as the ATM machine.
At the Villages, the theming structure is directed in a different direction, toward the idea of the hometown. We see a kind of 3D storytelling to return residents back to the time of their own youth. There are themed diners from the 1950s, a classic car parade, the fountain of youth as a public space. All of these things transport one back to this particular youthful period. It was interesting that residents describe themselves as being reborn or rejuvenated there.
This resonates with the Counterclockwise study by a Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer. She was studying the effect on seniors of transporting them back to the environmental context of their youth. In 1981, a group of men in their 70s was taken to a monastery, set up to be as it was in the 1950s. After several days, she realized they were behaving in an entirely different way. Their physical and mental performance had improved.
You mention criticisms by Lewis Mumford and Margaret Mead that age-segregated communities isolate the elderly, and that “aging in place” might be a better social model. But that’s not how the residents of these communities see it. What did they tell you about why they like living there among other people their age?
In general, you could summarize two forces: push factors that push people away from their existing homes, and pull factors that are attracting people to these kinds of environments. Two critical push factors would be an inability to maintain one’s own home physically, and the sense that one’s housing or neighborhood or both are inadequate for someone of advanced age. There are other things that are also frequently mentioned: an adverse climate, a high living cost in relation to limited income, insecurity or fear of crime, and the destabilizing effect of losing a spouse.
Common pull factors include better weather, safety and security, social life and activities, and the affordability and availability of healthcare. In addition, an environment where there’s no stigmatization around age, and there’s the ability to reinvent oneself through leisure.
I think the push factors relate to the potential to romanticize aging in place. What place is one aging within? It’s an important question. A low-density suburban environment based primarily on mobility through the private automobile is deeply problematic when one is not able to drive.
I largely support aging in place as a model, but I would question it as an orthodoxy, as it is becoming. We should not simply discount those who are moving into these retirement environments as escapists or isolationists, because they have their own particular reasons for doing so.
The image of the RV is far from cool, but you argue that the senior RV community is a sophisticated form of networked urbanism and quite transgressive in some ways. What are the overlooked, radical qualities of RV living?
The RV community challenges the familiar model of the formal, sedentary city, by replacing it with an informal, nomadic network of vehicles. Based upon relatively recent technology, it is possible for this community to produce social coherency between large numbers of people across great distances. This allows for coordinated, near-instant settlements to occur.
It resonates with radical projects of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Archigram’s Instant City, and with theoretical models of contemporary urbanism addressing themes such as informality, networks, infrastructural urbanism, and extended urbanism.
The lifestyle of the young-old utopia is accessible only to affluent citizens of developed countries. Baby Boomers in the U.S., Europe, and Japan have enjoyed a long run of prosperity. Will Generation Xers and Millennials be able to retire to these places, eventually? And will they even want to?
There are definitely questions regarding this paradigm of urbanism representing a particular moment. The Baby Boom generation is a quite different social group from the Eisenhower generation. Baby Boomers, many of whom are just starting to retire now, have been called the first predominantly urban generation, and they produced a youth culture based on the importance of individualization. This suggests that these larger, more standardized retirement communities might be less attractive going forward, especially when we head from the Boomers into Generation Xers and the Millennials.
What we will see is an increasing diversity of offerings. There’s a much finer grain of market segmentation that’s beginning to take place now, and further development of self-organized, smaller collective housing. At the same time, nonetheless, environments like the Villages continue to be popular. The American RV community continues to expand. The Costa del Sol, despite being hit by the crash, appears to be rebounding again.
The book attempts to problematize the wider phenomenon of urban segregation and fragmentation—not only according to age, but also in terms of socioeconomic status. In a way, you could say that the case studies are emblems of a much larger problem. They are based in many instances on constructing an image of community, often at the cost of society.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.