The AARP Livability Index is a valuable tool for journalists who want to take a closer look at the “age-friendliness” of their cities and communities. The interactive tool scores every neighborhood and community in the United States for the services and amenities that impact a community’s ability to meet the current and future needs of people of all ages, regardless of income, physical ability, or ethnicity.
The livability score is based on 61 metrics, including access to public transportation, housing, health care, and community support, and whether there are policies in place to address those needs. Not surprisingly, major cities like New York and San Francisco score high on criteria like public transit and walkability. But higher livability scores come with tradeoffs — high-ranking communities also come with a higher cost of living or poor and more crime.
The average score across the thousands of communities in the index was 50. This indicates improvements in one or more aspects of livability were necessary, according to Rodney Harrell, Ph.D., AARP’s vice president of family, home and community. “While no community was perfect, some certainly did much better than others on the index,” he said at a Nov. 3 press briefing during the Gerontological Society of America annual conference in Indianapolis.
The top-scoring locations include:
- Large cities (pop. > 500,000): Washington D.C., San Francisco and New York City
- Mid-sized cities (pop: 100,000 to 499,999): Arlington, Va., Cambridge, Mass. Alexandria, Va.
- Small cities (pop. 25,000 to 99,999): St. Louis Park, Minn., Watertown, Mass., Belmont, Mass.
- Small towns (pop. 5,000 to 24,999): Aspen, Colo., Los Alamos, New Mexico, Great Neck Plaza, N.Y.
I plugged my address into the tool and learned my community has a livability score of 52, just above the index’s average. My town scored high on environmental policies — my state has numerous strategies in place for ensuring clean air and water. Health indicators such as the prevalence of obesity and smoking, and policies which affect employment, like a state family and medical leave act, also ranked above average.
However, housing costs and cost burden (as a percent of income) were getting worse (not a surprise), and only 54.4% of local residents have high-speed, competitively priced broadband service, compared with the 2022 national median of 93.7%.
These specific metrics and any adjacent policies provide ample opportunities for reporters to question local, city and state officials on various shortfalls in their communities. Depending on specific scores, some of the questions you might consider include:
- Are more bus routes needed in a heavily car-dependent community?
- Is housing age-friendly — for example, do most homes have no-step entries or have bedrooms and bathrooms on the first floor? This year’s livability Index includes accessory dwelling units (ADUs) also known as in-law suites or guest houses. As housing costs rise and home options remain limited, ADUs can be a viable and affordable solution for people of all ages. However, only nine states and the District of Columbia have passed statewide ADU legislation.
- Do enough community and social supports like senior centers exist, and are they accessible without a car?
- How are communities addressing quality of life criteria like parks, cultural institutions and civic engagement?
- Are there enough medical providers and health care facilities per capita within the community or is it necessary to drive a considerable distance to access hospital or specialist care?
- How does a community in one zip code compare with another a few towns away?
Livability means different things to different people. It’s a pretty sure bet that priorities and needs will change as people age. Journalists can help hold state, city and town planners accountable for doing more than giving lip service to being age-friendly — ensuring that policies and services actually address some of these missing metrics.