Preserving People – Preserving Place

July 10, 2014
The Ward-Franzmann House circa 1840

The Ward-Franzmann House circa 1840

I believe there is a natural fit between the movement to create age and ability-friendly communities and historic preservation. This may have grown from my lifelong interest in all things old. My house, above, and I are growing older together, and, as it seems, both entering the winter of life. It’s a good fit. My personal passions and biases aside, nevertheless, I feel a case can be made that proponents of these two movements have much to say to each other and then much to do together.

Indiana Landmarks is one of the most highly respected and the largest private statewide preservation group in the U.S. There is another story there, of course, about leadership, vision, commitment and creativity. This last quality, I believe, helps account for its recent support of a day-long conference in Indianapolis on the subject of this old people-old place connection. Co-organized by another uniquely statewide Indiana treasure called the Indiana Philanthropy Alliance, the conference brought together preservationists and aging/disability professionals in what may have been the first meeting of its kind in the U.S.

Presenters addressed many of the technical issues surrounding accessible modifications for historic homes and commercial properties, the potential for a virtuous relationship between history and the ADA, and financial resources communities can use for historic preservation that benefits older populations, including Main Street restoration.

My contribution was to tender some thoughts about the relationship between the preservation of place and the preservation of community memory. In many ways, they are an identity. Place is the concrete expression of community memory and old people are its vessel, or, perhaps I have that backwards. It reads both ways because it is an identity. In any case, preservation of place is more likely to occur when it retains a presence in community memory. Buildings that fall into history without those personal connections to our current lives are more at risk for destruction unless, perhaps, they exude some extraordinary beauty or character, or are associated distantly with an officially recognized event or person. The position of older people in a community as holders of memory valorizes their role when other sources of status have diminished. A comment by Scott Roden in my previous blog on memory is evidence of this, “I had an elderly friend who passed away last year–he was very influential in my life. He once told me that his job now (at 85) was to remember…”

I try to avoid nostalgia; hope the Golden Age is something in the future, not the past. I am not naïve about the dark side of the places we have created. In a folklore field school we organized several years ago to study the Bloomington Town Square, we were curious about the lack of stories told about on-the-square experiences by older African-Americans. While the town square on Saturday nights in the 40’s was truly hopping, African-Americans, we were told, were not welcome. What was, and remains, a truly central and iconic feature of the place we call Bloomington was, despite the democratic image, an exclusive environment. I like to think that has changed, but it is something we should never forget.

Gerontologists often argue in favor of a policy called “aging in place”, understanding that the personal preference of most older people is to stay put. I would agree that people need the places, for the benefits to their social and physical well-being. I would add, however, that the places need the people just as much. When people stay put, the places benefit. Preserving place and preserving people is one job, not two.

And the house? Linda and I grow old together there and I am so lucky to dwell in her love as well.

Now, as a person also trying to attract valuable older people to our wonderful community, leaving their own, this presents some professional conflicts. I am working on this question and can try to pose a resolution of this paradox in another blog.


Home is a Verb: Designing around the lifeworld of elders

April 15, 2013

My latest blog is found at the newsletter of the American Architectural Foundation: http://www.archfoundation.org/

If you live near Bloomington, come to our spring workshop: Places with a Purpose: Communities for a Lifetime, with Jan Hively, Kim Irwin, Scott Ball and Zach Benedict.

Flyer found here: http://lifetimecommunities.org/

and see what else we are up to at the Center on Aging and Community: http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=31

Apologies for double postings. The subscription list is growing and someday I won’t have to bother you with yet another email.

Happy spring!

Phil


Where the Sidewalk Ends

June 23, 2011

The small towns some of us remember were essentially urban environments. Think about it: a vital commercial center with buildings taller than one story and the best locations and most beautiful buildings reserved for public uses; surrounding core neighborhoods with sidewalks on both sides of narrow grid-like streets, on street parking, tree plots, alleys for servicing the houses, narrow side lots, with houses and porches close to the sidewalk, and mixed uses that included neighborhood schools, groceries and cleaners. In Indiana there are towns with populations as small as 2,500 with this pattern.

If you grew up or visited grandparents in this small town, you know a bit about new urbanism. Now think about where the sidewalks end. They end where suburbanism began, where the streets began to curve, the yards got bigger, the uses restricted, and the alleys and porches disappeared.

As much as I like the poems and children’s stories of Shel Silverstein (especially The Giving Tree), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) draws a rather grim and dark picture of urban living, from which children must escape.

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

The promise of the suburbs was, indeed, to provide an alternative to the asphalt city, a life in the country, where nature abounds. In such an idyllic setting, who needs sidewalks?  

 In fact, nature does not begin where the sidewalk ends. The suburb exists between the polis and nature, in that liminal space which is neither. Isolation (single use) zoning creates homogeneous residential areas separated at a distance from such (urban) uses as stores, workplaces, health care, and even schools. Enter the automobile – the family truckster – to mediate the connections among these uses for every individual and family. What, for the resident of the town center used to be a short walk or ride to reach “nature”, now requires further effort (carbon-based fuel) to get beyond the intervening sprawl.

I believe that history will treat the classic suburb as a mistake in human design – see what might have been a hybrid as a mutant. I may be long gone, but I believe that small towns and cities will be reinhabited and restored as vital, however small, urban centers, encircled by natural features, and connected to the global village not so much by concrete as by digital highways.

The aging of our society can provide a significant point of leverage to recapture our small towns and cities. Lately, we have been spinning old people to the margins of our communities, building housing on the fringes and pulling out those worn but glowing images of a pastoral serenity that is supposed to be appropriate for old age. Let’s not repeat the mistake. Let’s look for ways to keep and bring elders to the heart of the community – make existing towns and cities the new “campus” for quality of life in old age.

A few days ago I challenged a smart group of long term care administrators to imagine such “continuing care retirement communities” without walls. I suggested that the gated retirement community on the edge of town will be a thing of the past. Some bought it, some didn’t. But all agreed that only a comprehensive community development approach where everyone takes a risk would work. Given the alternative – the death of small towns and cities – I think it’s worth it.


“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.


Redefining Prosperity

December 7, 2010

 

Live long and prosper

Vulcan salute

If I were to fulfill Mr. Spock’s blessing to “live long and prosper”, I guess I would die a rich old man.

Somehow, however, that dream feels a little hollow. Yet, it’s at the core of the American economy, right? We are told that we depend on people getting rich to create the jobs that fuel increased consumption and continued economic growth. And staying young forever is, of course, the desired state of every baby boomer consumer, according to Madison Avenue.

I have a growing suspicion that the prospects for every American to enjoy riches are as dim as the prospect that we can all live to 120. Acknowledging the reality of one’s own mortality is the first step to understanding what it means to age well. Acknowledging the reality of our economic limits can be the first step to a new definition of prosperity.

As this year’s fabulous Community Matters ’10 conference was held in Denver, I had an opportunity to meet planners, government officials, and resident activists from multiple small towns in the Mountain West and High Plains. Many of these communities are struggling economically, often due to the decline of traditional  industries (mining, logging, ranching and farming) in the face of worldwide competition. One common consequence of this trend is the departure of young people from their home communities and the subsequent increase in older age-density, creating what Dace Kramer has referred to as “naturally occurring retirement regions” (NORR’s). This has been accompanied by an influx of new retirees seeking amenities not typically provided by sunbelt retirement communities – incredible natural beauty, skiing, hiking, recreational ranching, etc. As one might guess, local economies are shifting to a “service” base as the population ages, due to both aging in place and in-migration.

While recognizing aging is a major driver of population and economic change in the New West, I have come to realize that, with respect to local economy, it’s impossible, better said, impractical, to discuss aging without reference to youth, and vice versa. If people are to age well in the New West, they need robust youth to provide services of all kinds. If communities are to provide opportunities for youth that enable them to stay put, they need the monetary investment of elders.

Seems like a simple dollars and cents issue. But it goes deeper. In the practical sense, attachment to place requires dollars and cents. For a young person, it equates to a job. For an elder, it often equates to cost of living. The converse applies to both. In a deeper sense, attachment to place is not a monetary issue. We are attached to a place because we feel we belong there. We know the place and it knows us. We nurture the place and it nurtures us.

When we reach the right place, we don’t need more because we have enough. We have loving relationships. We have the sense of fulfillment that comes from the beauty of the quiet order around us balanced by the sense of delight that comes from the unpredictable and creative spirit of nature and of youth. To appreciate what we have means we must regularly view our place from the outside, which can simply involve embracing those strangers who are our future neighbors, friends and family.

When we reach the right place, we are prosperous. Yet, we may very well be spending less, not more, which in the current scheme is anathema to our American economy. We are told that, without wealth-creation, America will become a “second-class economy.” The “new normal” means a lower standard of living. If that’s true, is this bad? These days, both young people and elders are the new pioneers in the so-called lower standard of living. Should we not notice that they are discovering the difference between standard of living and quality of life? Should we not be listening to elders who can teach us how they survived hard times and to youth who can teach us how to live more lightly on the planet?

Addendum:

Through the generous support of the Orton Family Foundation, and others, the participants in the Community Matters ’10 conference came together to explore and develop a new “heart and soul” approach to community planning. This approach is based on the belief that a slavish adherence to growth in every direction threatens the heart and soul of our communities – the things that, in the end, attach us to place and define who we are. Economic growth and quality of life are not necessarily antithetical. But a corporation is not a person (despite the Supreme Court decision) and capital is, too often, not attached to place. Planning that reveals and promotes the heart and soul of a place is essential and, indeed, many local companies are loyal to their communities and help define heart and soul. Storytelling and story sharing are critical tools for “heart and soul” practitioners. For a wealth of connections to this growing and exciting area of community planning and activism, visit the Orton website at: http://www.orton.org

Spend some time with the site and be sure to look for the Heart and Soul Community Planning Principles.


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