“Old people everywhere.”

March 11, 2011

This little op-ed appeared in the Bloomington, IN Herald-Times on Saturday, March 5, 2011.

Planning policy: ‘Old people everywhere’

Special to the H-T
March 5, 2011

This guest column is by Phil Stafford, director of the Center on Aging and Community, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University.

Architect and planner Christopher Alexander is an inspired thinker who has greatly influenced the way we think about the world we are building. He and his colleagues have created a compendium of “design principles” which manifest the timeless way of building.

“There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.” (The Timeless Way of Building, 1979)

“Old people everywhere” is a seminal design principle that describes communities that, alas, are often only remembered. Yet, one need only go back to pre-1950 suburban tract communities to find places where people of all ages lived, worked, schooled and played together. Some of these features still describe certain core neighborhoods in Bloomington and, let me tell you, these neighborhoods are treasured by their residents.

Yet, many of the actions which can be taken to create livable neighborhoods for all ages are, to put it bluntly, illegal in many areas of the city. Mixing retail, medical services and housing; mixing house types; accessory dwellings; shared housing; reduced parking requirements — are a few among the many tools that progressive communities can use to promote livable neighborhoods for all ages — neighborhoods that support productivity, walkability, accessibility and sociability across the lifespan. Instead, as has happened throughout the U.S., we have made these actions illegal and, as a consequence, have produced homogeneous “Peter Pan” communities that separate the generations and make it virtually impossible to age in place when one no longer drives.

One current proposal pending before the Bloomington Plan Commission would attempt to reverse the trend of marginalizing elders through a strategy of infill development (Renwick/Cardon) and create a continuum of support in the context of a mixed-use, new urban community. A good thing. On the other hand, I do wish this project had considered this from the beginning and involved all potential residents in developing a vision for such a model, accompanied by public policy incentives that would make such a project feasible for the developer. This project would look much different and better balanced, I suspect. I would like to live in a community where this is not a naive position.

Old people, and I count myself as one who looks forward to old age, offer much to the neighborhoods they inhabit. They increase the security of a neighborhood for they are often around during the day and aware of what’s going on, contribute to the beauty of neighborhoods by keeping things up, want to be around persons of all ages, are more likely to shop locally, and have more loyalty to local restaurants and businesses, bring richness of experience and storied lives to a place.

As the Kung San of the Kalahari desert say “Old people give you life.”

As a 7-year-old who had the privilege of visiting with an ancient Mrs. Culbertson on her porch swing across my street, I have to ask what parent in the world would not want his or her child to have the opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship with an old person. When old people are everywhere, we all benefit.

Communities for a Lifetime

March 1, 2011

Indiana’s Communities for a Lifetime bill is advancing through the General Assembly. With unanimous approval from the Senate Local Government Committtee, the bill passed to the Senate floor, passed there and has passed first House reading. One can visit the Indiana General Assembly website to view the legislation (Senate Bill 023) and follow its progress. I had the privilege of providing testimony at the Local Government committee on Feb. 11.

In a related editorial to the Indianapolis Star, I argue that we can wait no longer to being planning communities that work across the lifespan…

Is Indiana “Aging-ready?”

… we can wait no longer to begin serious planning to meet the needs and aspirations of the baby boom generation. The boom has sounded. Every day sees the entry of 10,000 individuals to the ranks of 65+ in the United States.

Doubtless, many are already tired of the explosion of articles, reports, and books on the baby boom and what it means for the nation. Some would argue, with economist Peter Peterson, that the demographic changes threaten the very fabric of our society, bringing about a bleak “Gray Dawn.” Others, such as author Marc Freedman, see the growing population of older adults as a vast, untapped treasure of talent and human capital, a golden opportunity, if we act wisely. None would argue, however, that the changes will have no impact on the status quo. Rather than wait to see what happens, why not plan for both the challenges and the opportunities ahead of us?

As for challenges, the reality is… we age. Our physical reserve capacity diminishes, our risk for disability increases. Large numbers of us will develop Alzheimer’s.  Many of us will develop age-related hearing and vision losses. Of course, many boomers hold out hope they can stave off disability and “square the curve” – avoid a long decline and stay robust till a “quick ending.” More power to them. Indeed, the fitness and nutrition craze, along with remarkable new medicines to control blood pressure and lower cholesterol, will enable many to enjoy more years of health than previous generations. Ironically, this puts a greater number of people at risk for Alzheimer’s and, combined with the sheer absolute numbers of those who don’t maintain health, will still challenge the systems of health and supportive services. Moreover, adults with developmental disabilities are, happily, living longer than ever before. As much of the public cost associated with health care for the elderly is directed towards institutions (both hospitals and long term care facilities), we must bend the arc of support in Indiana towards home and community based care. This is to say that aging is not simply a personal challenge, nor a medical problem to be solved by experts, but a community challenge.

Many communities throughout Indiana have begun to think creatively and collectively about what makes a good place to grow up and grow old. When describing their vision of a “community for a lifetime”, residents talk about walkable environments and mixed-use zoning. They envision new forms of housing such as shared housing, accessory units, downtown senior housing, and elder-cottages. They are innovating forms of association such as cooperatives providing supportive services through volunteer time-banks built upon inter-generational relationships. Municipal leaders seek local economies that don’t spin out young people and families, losing both the privileges and benefits of reciprocal exchanges between the elders of the family and community.

 There will never be a pill for old age. The destiny of both the young and the old will be determined by our ability to create sustainable, livable cities and towns. Current thinking, reflected in the new federal partnership established between HUD, the Dept. of Transportation, and the EPA, suggests that planning for sustainable communities will cut across the traditional lines we’ve drawn when making housing, transportation and land- use decisions. Moreover, to meet the need for creative solutions, planning must become more participative. To understand and sustain the heart and soul of Hoosier cities and towns residents of all ages and abilities must be engaged in the process. Yes, Indiana’s future may be gray. And gray is good.

 By Philip B. Stafford, Ph.D.

Director, Center on Aging and Community, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community

Indiana University

Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Anthropology and author of Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America (Praeger, 2009)

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