“Old people everywhere.”

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.