Aging Populations Research Series, 2: Young-Old Utopia, ‘The Villages of Florida’

What can we learn from the world’s largest age-segregated community – The Villages of Florida, USA? Is it really just some sort of Disney World for seniors on steroids or is there more to it? This is the second instalment of our research journey into the relationship between aging populations and cities.
by Koko Herder



Inhabitants of The Villages are leading active lifestyles (Source: suncruisin.files.wordpress.com)

We follow architect Deane Simpson in his investigation of a number of exemplary retirement communities and contexts around the world as presented in his book ‘Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society’ (2015). The Villages of Florida is by far the largest single-site retirement development realized today, hosting 101,600 inhabitants in 2013 and an estimated population of almost 110,000 in 2017. Promoted as “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown”, the development was envisioned as a “Disney World for Active Retirees” by its founders when the project took off in 1959. The sheer scale of it compares to the municipality of Copenhagen and the population equates that of the elderly populations of cities such as Houston, Texas or San Diego, California in the USA. Below, I discuss some of The Villages’ main features that we can learn from.


Simpson explains that The Villages deploys a strategy of simultaneously scaling up and scaling down development. Scaling up proves to be economically beneficial: the size of the clustered elderly population attracts retailers to the area and supports the extremely large number of leisure amenities. In 2008, The Villages was home to 91 recreational centers, 69 pools and 47 golf courses. At the same time, the massive development is scaled down through the subdivision of the territory into more than 60 smaller-sized “villages”, each with its own name and identity.

The scaling down tendency can also be observed in the three downtowns, which form the focal points of The Villages’ active community life. Here, themed areas immerse residents into traditional, friendly American hometown-like environments with the goal of inducing and sustaining feelings of familiarity. Take Brownwood, for instance, which resembles cowboy-style Florida of the 1800s. The built environment features rusty pickup trucks, brick facades and water tanks. Through theming, contemporary time is lost in The Villages, causing residents to become largely disconnected from present reality. Simpson argues that by eliminating contemporary-styled elements, few manifestations exist with which to experience the passing of time (and growing old), such as buildings “going out of fashion”. As a result of living in this sort of “bubble”, residents of The Villages may feel like they are not really getting any older.


Brownwood in The Villages (Source: discoversumterfl.com)




The main mode of transportation in “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown” is the golf cart. As such, it has its own infrastructural system, largely separated from cars. The downtowns can be reached by golf cart from almost anywhere within a drive of approximately 10 minutes. The golf cart helps enable retirees living in The Villages to remain highly mobile, facilitated by the fact that a driver’s license is not necessary and the carts are also able to access off-road terrain. A trend among The Villages’ residents is to customize golf carts, serving as a sort of identity manifestation. Fun fact: in a colorful parade of pimped rides in 2005, the residents of The Villages broke the record for the world’s largest golf cart parade.


Customized golf carts parade in The Villages (Source: photonews247.com)


“Everyday we are booked”, explains one of the residents in a promotional video for The Villages. With over 1000 clubs and 1200 events each month, it is difficult to get bored or lonely. Seniors living in the retirement community are leading active lives, and they build new social relations based on interests through the large number of active clubs and leisure possibilities. Simpson argues that highly active, structured leisure activities and lifestyles enable elderly to carry out the habits, organization, and structure of their working days, which often results in retirees leading hyperactive lifestyles. Following Stephen Katz, Simpson places the disciplining of retirement time in a broader neoliberal political-economic agenda, posing activity as the “positive” against the “negative” forces of dependency, illness and loneliness.


So what can we learn from The Villages? Of course, some aspects of this wacky retirement community may seem ridiculous, but, in terms of urban correlates of the Young-Old (see first blog post of this series), I see three things worth noting. First, for the Young-Olds it seems to be important that the built environment feels familiar. Second, living environments should be accessible for the Young-Olds to remain mobile. In The Villages, this is achieved through a golf cart transportation system, however other possibilities do exist. Third, desirably, living environments for the group of Young-Olds support or even promote physically and socially active lifestyles, whether through the provision of leisure amenities or networks of clubs.

One question remains: is segregation acceptable and are the Young-Old better off in retirement communities with corresponding living environments, or should we strive for habitats of mixed-ages that incorporate the aspects mentioned above?

About the author

Koko Herder

Koko is about to graduate from the research master Urban Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Throughout his studies he has tried to combine planning and urban theory with urban design. Drawing inspiration from urban explorations across the world and being fascinated by everyday urban life, Koko encourages participatory and collaborative planning processes. At CITIES Foundation he now researches the relationship between aging populations and cities.


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