Social Architecture For the Urban Low-Income Elderly


Richard W. Seaton (1971) ,"Social Architecture For the Urban Low-Income Elderly", in SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. David M. Gardner, College Park, MD : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 130-134.

Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1971     Pages 130-134


Richard W. Seaton, University of British Columbia

If asked about what kind of ideal housing might be provided for low-income elderly persons, a North American respondent might visualize a pleasant suburban or rural setting with several scores of small villas clustered around a central meeting hall enclosing recreational facilities and surrounded by neatly trimmed grass, shrubs and flowers. Another might disagree, arguing that for the urban elderly the rural cottage setting is less appropriate than miniature townhouses ordered about a private urban greensward. A third may favor more substantial-looking communal low-rise housing blocks for the elderly, dispersed within neighborhoods rich in growing children. Still others may advocate refurbishing existing obsolete or decrepit habitations.

Only a few persons may indicate high rise, high-density towers as appropriate for the elderly. Many regard such a form as an "urban ghetto in the sky" for the old, in which they are shut off from the ordinary street-level congress of urban life in an institutional holding bin until they die.

An aim of this paper is to suggest that high-rise, high-density housing can be ideal for elderly low income persons in an urban setting. The argument builds in personal and social characteristics of the elderly, coupled with consideration of the kinds of purposes which new housing for the elderly is intended to fulfill. Given these characteristics and purposes, a high-rise high-density large population aggregation structure appears appropriate in the urban setting.


Design of housing for the low-income elderly properly is a function of the characteristics of inhabitants to be accommodated. These typically include:

Single Status

Most of the inhabitants will have lost their spouses and will be maintaining one-person households. They accordingly lack partners or roommates to share the burdens of household maintenance and to exchange socio-emotional support.


The literature on geriatrics has expanded voluminously and is not properly reviewed here. It can partly be summarized by generalities that elderly people lack the social energies of those younger; have reduced tolerance of ambiguity; have greater response latency; have reduced strength; have some memory loss; prefer the familiar; are worried by novelty or strangers; have some opinions that are out-of-date in terms of current modes of thought; have views, habits and values which do not readily accommodate the views, habits or values of most other old people; are slow in adapting full to new circumstances.

Low Income

All inhabitants in publicly-underwritten low-income housing are in relatively straitened circumstances, having only a few dollars a day for expenses other than housing. This reduces their physical and social mobility; they cannot well afford taxicabs or long-distance telephone calls, or substantial outlays to attend the entertainment resources of downtown districts.

Female Sex

Because there is a marked differential between the sexes in age-specific death rates after age 40, the median age at death for Canadian men is five years younger than for women. The median age at death of British Columbia women is 75 years (1966 figures). This means that half the women in B.C. live longer than 75 years, very likely having earlier lost their spouses at an age outside the feasible facilities and activities planned for housing residents should tend to emphasize interests and skills of old females rather than old males, who form a minority in the population of the elderly.


Morbidity from all causes rised sharply among those advancing beyond sixty years of age. These may be partly disabling, so that persons affected will have sharply reduced mobility, sometimes being restricted to wheelchairs. Even when not disabling, ills among the elderly will create a substantial demand for at least para-medical services to be provided in the immediate environs.

Lack of Kin and Friends

Being elderly, and surviving beyond the median age of death in the population, means that on a statistical basis perhaps half of one's friends and kin in the family of orientation will be dead. At the same time, factors suggested above as associated with the elderly (e.g., low social energies, low economic resources, lack of sympathy with new ideas of the young, disease with unfamiliar people.

Dispersal of Kin and Friends

Surviving friends and relations (e.g., off spring) characteristically move every half-dozen years or so, away from former urban neighborhoods to other sections of the city, to the suburbs, to different towns or even (in about 15% of moves) out of the province or state. Maintaining viva-voce contact with these entails substantial transportation and telephone costs; otherwise, out-of-sight will lead to out-of-mind, with further consequent attrition of kin and friendship ties. In addition, merely moving into new housing for the elderly necessitates one's removal from friends and acquaintances in her former neighbourhood.

Lack of Legitimate Role

The mobility of offspring and the impatience of the young with old-fashioned ideas of the elderly curtail opportunity of the elderly to fill the "grandparent role" traditional to an earlier, more rural and less marketing-oriented society. In Western Canada this role probably has diminished (for most elderly) to a few ritualistic assemblies at yearly holidays, and exchanges by mail, and long-distance telephone calls; contact with grandchildren (the alter egos of grandparents) is reduced to largely one-way communications and flow of gifts on birthdays.

The characteristics sketched here above add up to what we already know about most old people: they tend to be worried, obstinate, easily confused, out of date, bothered by uncertainty, lonely, penurious, unused to social independence, and without an esteemed role in society. By considering these qualities, the designer can visualize forms and layouts for housing the elderly that are likely to be appropriate to their characteristics.


The definition of appropriate housing for the urban low income elderly depends in part on what changes in the quality of their lives is to be achieved through new housing.

Material Comfort

Much of the accommodation displaced by urban renewal or to be replaced by new housing developments is ancient and sub-standard. While not usually verminous, old low-rent accommodations typically have become dirty and dilapidated pending ultimate destruction. Private bathrooms are a comparative rarity, for example. Upgrading and amplification of basic amenities to standard is an assumed purpose of new housing provision.

Social Interaction

Evidence of large-scale studies or health of the elderly in metropolitan centers in the U.S. (none available for Canada) suggests that persons more active in a network of friends and kin have lower morbidity rates. Although causation for the correlation cannot be determined, a reasonable supposition is that opportunity to receive more stimuli allows exercising response potential and reception of more psycho-social support, with both factors inhibiting morbidity.

Security and Clarity of Environment

Earlier paragraphs suggest that with declining sensory acuity and comprehension of innovation, the elderly find themselves in a world of disturbing events that threaten them at a stage of life when their resistive powers are failing. Privacy, security, clarity, stability and slow pace in the environment thus become more important to the elderly than they are to the rest of us.

Alternatives available for housing the urban elderly are restricted to those feasible in the urban setting. All are characterized by relatively high densities, due to high costs of land acquisition. Feasible alternatives include small terraces or row houses (like those in Radburn), grouped around small urban squares; or massive low-rise apartment blocks; or point blocks; or high-rise tower blocks; or mixed cases of terrace, low-rise and high-rise blocks.and towers.

This brief holds that the high-rise wing block is the housing form appropriate to housing the urban low-income elderly, given that one accepts that the quality of their lives is improved by sociability constrained by needs for privacy, quiet and security. The reasoning is as follows:

a) the elderly (typically widows) have lost friends and kin, are lonely to a degree, but lack energies and opportunities to create new friends.

b) Due to lack of adaptability, an old person is likely to find only a small percentage of the elderly population sufficiently similar in background and values to allow friendship formation.

c) Therefore, the larger the population available for contact by an elderly person, the more likely it is that she will contact similar and therefore congenial persons.

d) The elderly are relatively immobile, for physical and economic reasons. Therefore the more dense the immediately surrounding population, the more potentially congenial persons can be contacted by a given resident.

e) High density in a population can be achieved by aggregation in a central place. Access to a dense population is optimal to those residing in a neighborhood area directly adjacent to it.

f) In a high-rise building, the different floors can be considered as residential areas largely independent of each other (i.e., there usually is very little communications or social exchange between adjacent floors of elevator-equipped residential buildings). Each floor has via the elevators almost instant contiquity with a lobby or assembly area. Thus, given a community or assembly center in a housing settlement, those living on floors above it are as temporally contiguous to it as those living in a neighboring area directly adjacent to it.

g) Thus a high-rise building offers residents immediate access to a gathering space without the traffic and noise handicaps that may be associated with horizontal proximity to a gathering place. This proximity provides opportunity for the elderly to seek out the relatively few so similar to them in background and interests that social bonds can develop.

The argument sketched above is clearly incomplete. For example, any implication in the above that the elderly would be willing to mingle in large crowds in a community center or assembly area is incorrect. A community center properly should be thought of as a bazaar with so many subspaces catering to persons with diverse interests and associations that no one group or population segment can dominate the whole. Thus an individual's exposure to an large aggregate should be gradual cumulating through successive encounters with different small groups meeting in community subspaces throughout the day and week.

The lower the elevation of high-density housing, the more dispersed and strung out it must become. In such condition, some persons contiguous to assembly areas or community resources will have advantages of immediate access to people and amenities (as well as possible disadvantages of noise and congestion). Those further away, however, have access to community center resources hindered by space-time barriers, possibly to the extent they will form separate social subcenters in their immediate environs and forego use of community-wide facilities. This phenomenon is common enough and is even sought after and encouraged in housing for clients in younger life stages. Such horizontal dispersion and suboptimization in low-rise construction has the corollary disadvantage that disabled residents must be specially tied to a small subset of the population in the community.

Similar proximity-based curtailment of social contacts also commonly holds for children in suburban subdivisions. Old people who are crippled or chairbound or lacking carfare are like children in the territorial restriction they undergo. The more the territorial restriction, the smaller the proportion of the total residential population that can be contacted. The smaller the population proportion in potential contact, the lower the probability of finding similar and therefore congenial others. Also horizontal dispersal of a high-density low mobile population reduces or eliminates the collective economic advantages of high density, including the support of a wide diversity of amenities by a broad population base.


A stereotypic model of the low income old person presents her as faced with personal losses and constraints which call for special housing forms. It is judged that the typical old lady with curtailed income likes to feel near the center of things with a capacity to contribute and receive social involvements but with opportunity for withdrawal and privacy. High rise high density housing would appear to provide those housing attributes.

In summary, vertical stacking of housing areas for the low-income occurs with the successive floors of a high-rise building..... allows each area to be contiguous to community amenities in terms of transit times. This contiguity allows economics of large scale use and cumulated consumer support of a wide diversity of amenities. The more the family units so housed, the more self-sufficient the building can become in terms of diverse amenities and activities economically feasible within its walls. The psychological stresses of congestion is diffused by amenities being decentralized into many subspaces interspersed with sociability lounges; by this means, crowds are more or less distributed into small groups that are psychologically manageable. A centralized, compact and mixed distribution of heterogeneous services, amenities, clubs, special interest groups and recreational or lounge spaces permits settings where old people with similar habits, views and values can seek each other out and become friendly acquaintances on the basis of personal common interests....rather than mere proximities. They thereby can achieve heightened participation and interaction rates, and reduced loneliness.



Richard W. Seaton, University of British Columbia


SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1971

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


Q6. Online Social Status Predicts Subjective Well-being: a Two Population Study

Rui Du, University of Hawaii, USA
Miao Hu, University of Hawaii, USA

Read More


K2. Influence of Attentional Breadth on Processing and Memory of Brand Advertisements

Nicolas Noack, University of Duisburg-Essen
Lynn Brinkmann, University of Duisburg-Essen
Oliver B. Büttner, University of Duisburg-Essen

Read More


The Impostor Syndrome from Luxury Consumption

Dafna Goor, Harvard Business School, USA
Nailya Ordabayeva, Boston College, USA
Anat Keinan, Harvard Business School, USA
Sandrine Crener, Harvard Business School, USA

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.