The four “case study probes,” as Simpson calls them, follow shorter investigations of three mid-20th-century developments for the then burgeoning Young-Old: Youngtown and Sun City, Arizona, and Laguna Woods Village, California. Given the historical backgrounds these planned communities afford, and the sheer size and rapid growth of The Villages since its founding in 1989, The Villages is explored the most. A one-hour drive north of Orlando, it is also the community that my parents moved to from Chicago after they retired, lending me some firsthand experience of the place and piquing my interest in Simpson’s thoroughly researched and sharply illustrated book.
Like Sun City a few decades before it, The Villages attempts to reconcile two opposed conditions: the low-scale fabric of small-town or suburban America and the density of amenities found in urban centers. The former takes the form of gated residential “villages” (70 and counting with names like Village of Silver Lake and Village of Hemingway) that are interspersed among nearly 50 golf courses, while the latter is found in three “town squares” that roughly follow New Urbanist principles with shops and restaurants fronting pedestrian-oriented streets and central squares for musical performances and other events nightly.
Golf courses are a common feature of retirement communities, but The Villages goes one step further by making connections between the residential and commercial realms through a golf cart infrastructure that prioritizes this alternative mode of transportation over cars and gives the development one of its most distinctive traits. Control also binds these two realms: The houses are slave to CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions), giving the enclaves a homogenous “greigeness” that is lifted briefly during the holidays when lawn decorations can be displayed; the three town squares, on the other hand, borrow heavily from Disney’s Main Street USA in their incorporation of distinct thematic identities (a Spanish settlement, a beachside resort, a cowboy/cattle town) that are expressed in the facades and “scenic aging” of the architecture but also plaques that tell stories of the Spanish settlement’s “fountain of youth” and other fake histories.
Simpson analyzes the four contemporary case studies through observations, interviews and research, accompanied by maps and some impressive data visualizations. But he goes much further than their physical characteristics, delving into the health and psychological benefits of the theme park–like designs of The Villages, Costa del Sol, and Huis Ten Bosch, for example, as well as the legal and political frameworks that make The Villages, in particular, so troubling as a model for retirement communities in the United States. Will Baby Boomers, the generation of anti-war protests and social experimentation in the 1960s, be satisfied with the CDD (community development district) laws that exclude residents from democratic decision-making in The Villages but give the developer more power and profits?
The Villages’ boom is predicated on expectations of Third-Age leisure and a massive retirement industry, but the environmentally unsustainable means of laying out sprawling and (golf-)car-centric residential enclaves on greenfield sites is another indication that it is hardly the ideal form for Young-Old urbanism. Simpson does not offer alternatives outside of the four probes, but he is able to show how the decisions and desires of an aging population have shaped private developments catered to them, thereby providing ammunition for the design of future alternatives.