For anyone who keeps an eye on Census data, last week’s news that the fastest-growing metropolitan statistical area in the country is the Villages, the master-planned retirement community in Florida, was not surprising. In ten years, it grew from 93,000 people to nearly 130,000 residents, about 40 percent. Although all 20 of the largest cities in the U.S. grew over the past decade — some more than others — none of them are booming like the Villages, which covers 32 square miles, an area larger than Manhattan, and is still briskly expanding. Its unbridled growth over the last decade means that it’s doing something right, and anyone considering how cities might better house their aging populations ought to take a long look at its ideas — both the bad ones and the good ones.
“We needed to create this place not brand-new: We wanted to create it old,” says Richard Schwartz in the documentary Some Kind of Heaven, released in January. His father, Howard Schwartz, founded the Villages in 1992. “We decided to bring the baby boomers to a home they were familiar with when they were young.” To do this, the Villages turned to former Disney Imagineers for urban-planning advice, a step practically mandated by Florida law. And indeed, it does look a bit like Orlando’s theme park, with its pastiche of main streets and town squares in varying commitments to historical architectural styles, from convincingly charming to utterly cartoonish. Buyers choose their preferred vibe — faux Spanish Colonial or, perhaps, faux Western Pioneer — and work with the “Street of Dreams” team to choose a home in one of a variety of styles and one of a variety of approved pastel hues. The whole process must be incredibly efficient, because about 200 to 250 new homes are sold each month. “It’s not just that they’re selling 2,400 new homes a year,” says Ryan Erisman, author of Inside the Bubble: The Complete Guide to Florida’s Most Popular Community. “It’s that they’ve been doing this for the past decade, and before that, in the boom times of 2005 and 2006, they were selling 3,000 new homes per year.” The current median home sale price is $268,600, but that doesn’t include an additional “cost of living” fee ranging from $758 to $1,159 per month, which, among other things, grants access to amenities like unlimited golf on 50 courses. Nor does it include the must-have mode of transportation: a golf cart — or “golf car,” as Villagers call them, inexplicably — an estimated 60,000 of which residents rent, purchase, and customize (starting with the $12,000 basic model; many spend double that) at one of five auto shops, one of which is a charming simulacrum of a 1930s service station.
Those golf carts, in fact, make a lot of urban-transportation planners salivate. By some estimates, one-third of all trips in the Villages are taken in them. They run on electricity, or on a little bit of non-ethanol gasoline (dispensed from old-timey pumps, even). They are lightweight and barely pollute. They’re not supposed to go faster than 20 mph, and they don’t kill many people the way cars do (although it does happen). The embrace of slow-moving, smaller vehicles is a major part of fostering a gentler, more pedestrian-friendly physical place, one with mobility options for older Americans who are more at risk of dying in car crashes wherever they are. The wholehearted embrace of them by the Villages, on the surface, seem like a prototype for elder America, at least in places where the climate is mild.
But the urbanism of the Villages turns out to be only so-so in practice. “Most people still have cars,” says Erisman. “They might come with two cars and switch to one car and one golf cart.” And, in fact, all those new homes express this choice in their floor plan: most houses are built with one full-size garage and a pint-size, golf-car one alongside it. For all the photos of colorful Sunbrella-canopied vehicles parked nose-in to the curb, and the bridges and tunnels designed exclusively for them that thread over and under nearby interstates, each Villages destination can also be easily reached by SUV. And that’s what most residents do when leaving their immediate neighborhood, explains Erisman, who notes that it’s all just a little too spread out to work otherwise. (There’s a dial-a-ride service, and an autonomous vehicle shuttle pilot was tried out in 2018, but no real public transportation.) Only in the past year has the Villages opened its first multistory, multifamily development that might shorten those distances between destinations, and even that modest level of density has created internal strife between residents who fret about, among other things, how hard it is to get a tee time now. And for this overwhelmingly conservative population — the Villages went two-to-one for Trump — the very thing that may be attracting those who want to “Make America Great Again” are its pseudo-suburban neotraditionalist aesthetics, as James Brasuell wrote in Planetizen last year, asking whether “the village ideal is actually inherently conservative, and a vehicle for segregation.” (The Villages remains 98 percent white, even as the surrounding counties grow more diverse.)
So, yes, there’s a lot wrong with the Villages. But we’ve got a looming crisis to solve: Sustainably housing and providing services for 70 million aging boomers — what some have nicknamed, somewhat insultingly, the “silver tsunami” — is going to take creative thinking. Most older Americans want to age in place, and many can’t, or won’t, move to big cities with dense transportation networks and nearby grocery stores. Of course we should be working, in general, to put everything closer together so nobody has to get behind the wheel at the age of 95 — or 55, for that matter. But there’s going to end up being some in-between territory as well, and giving everyone (not just seniors) access to something like a golf cart, at minimal cost, as well as safe enough streets to operate them, could go a long way.