Risk vs. Challenge

July 2, 2013

 

I heard a fascinating presentation by Lamine Madjoubi (Bristol University UK) at the International Making Cities Livable Conference in Portland, OR last week.

http://www.livablecities.org/conferences/50th-conference-portland

Lamine studies the culture of childhood and has done research on children’s play in the UK. Using accelerometers and GPS monitoring, the research team is able to track children’s level of activity and their range over the course of a day. Given the interest in physical activity and obesity these days, the research is very important and helps us learn what factors in the built environment promote higher levels of activity.

The team compared intensity and duration of activity across formal to informal environments. Formal play environments would include playgrounds with equipment and some supervision and informal environments would include, of course, those in-between spaces that children love – alleys, streets, the spaces between buildings.

What the research demonstrated is that play in informal environments is more likely to be of higher intensity and longer duration. Those spaces that are informal but also allow for parental supervision (courtyards, for example) promote higher quality play but that unaccompanied children are more likely to play longer and choose informal areas over formal ones. Growing up in a small town 60 years ago with lots of independence, these findings are, to me, not surprising at all.

Dr. Mahdjoubi asks – “Can we take back the streets for children?”, knowing full well that the psychology of parenthood these days is very protective, often for legitimate reasons. Yet, have we gone too far?

Can we move the discussion from risk to challenge?

I think the same question would enervate our discussion of aging and frailty. As caregivers for elders we are often faced with the same dilemma. Certainly, in this age of litigation, the balance in institutions is shifted towards risk-reduction. Yet, in families too, the dreaded “Fall” is loaded with psychological burden and we have come to use the “Fall” as the marker (justification) for “placing” people in institutional environments. I am as guilty as others on this score. Is it no wonder that elderly individuals living alone don’t report falls?  They know full well what this can mean.

Discussions of safety are not productive when we frame the issue in black and white terms. Let’s think of this as a continuum and design built environments that push the envelope a bit without being totally negligent or totally over protective. We can’t eliminate risk from childhood or elderhood. We can reduce risk through smart design while promoting environments that challenge us, physically, mentally and socially. Indeed, facing risk and successfully coping promotes resilience and a new balance, at a higher level of fitness.

I don’t have the answers. The designers do. But this design, to be smart, must be informed by an insider’s knowledge of childhood and an insider’s knowledge of what it is like to grow old. Who has that knowledge?  Why children and elders of course!

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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.


The Deep Meaning of Home

November 10, 2010

Attention to the deep meaning of home takes us to a kind of figurative commons, where we can have a serious discussion of the ubiquitous phrase “aging in place.”

For many practitioners and elders as well, aging in place has traditionally been equated with aging in one’s current residence – be it house or apartment. In fact, this is precisely the meaning taken in the AdvantAge Initiative survey in Indiana, which asked 5,000 older Hoosiers whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “What I’d really like to do is stay in my current residence for as long as possible.” Moreover, 94% of Hoosiers 60+ agreed with that statement! Clearly, staying put is the preferred choice for the vast majority of older adults in Indiana, and elsewhere. Our ethnographic research on the meaning of home in Bloomington offers some clues as to why people feel so strongly about the issue.

Home is a deep concept, far more significant than “house.” In the Bloomington research we encountered individuals who have lived in the same house for over 75 years! Imagine the sediments of memory that have been laid down over such a period of time. It requires a virtual archaeology of memory to peel back the deep meaning of a life in such a place. These memories, good and bad, are codified in the physical contents of the place. As she walks through the house, the owner walks, again, through life. Photos, furniture stains, knick knacks, postcards, window vistas, even dents in the woodwork signify and embody important events, episodes, and individuals in one’s life. How could one be expected to easily leave behind the door jamb marked by pencil with the advancing height of one’s children?

Home is a physical support. Over time, home and body coalesce, a hand in glove. We can walk through our home with our eyes closed because we maintain its physical representation within our body. This is very comforting. Managing the home (sometimes trivialized as homemaking) anchors daily life, provides markers for our temporal experience, and provides cues and incentives to keep our body and mind active.

Home is a financial cushion. For older homeowners (87% of older Hoosiers), the home is often THE primary financial asset. According to Michael Hurd of the RAND Corporation, home values during the current financial crisis dropped somewhere between 10% and 33% (according to different surveys). One can understand why, these days, older persons might be reluctant to tap their equity through the sale of their home.

Home is an aesthetic. You design its appearance for self-satisfaction and display to others. The aesthetic reflects your own sense of self just as importantly as does your clothing and your car.

Home is a social base. When you are home, it’s your territory, your turf. You control who enters. When you are home you are at the node of a social network of friends, neighbors and family. Home is a launching pad for connections with the immediate neighborhood and the wider community. This is why it’s so important to get out on the front porch and make it to the mailbox. (More on that later.)

With all these things in play, the home becomes a mirror for the self. It represents you to yourself and, as such, provides a constant reminder of your uniqueness and contributions to your family, your neighborhood, your community. Is it any wonder why someone would want to stay put?

What practitioners, family members, friends and neighbors know, however, is that staying put is not always the best solution if it results in social isolation, depression or unmanageable risks to health and wellbeing, notwithstanding the desires of an elder; and particularly so when the elder’s judgment is clouded by dementia.

Practically speaking, this “tension” between staying put or moving on often results in conversations and negotiations around “acceptable risks.” In fact, dichotomizing the choices as one or the other can be non-productive. Better to openly discuss the adaptations necessary to accomplish either goal. Staying put, indeed, does not mean “not adapting”. There are many adaptations we all likely need to make just to stay put. It’s not black and white – change or no change.

Acknowledging the complexity and difficulty of staying put, in light of the deep attachment to place, was one secret to the success of a home modification initiative created by residents, leaders, and providers for a NORC (naturally occurring retirement community) neighborhood in the little town of Linton, Indiana, population 5,000, in the spring of 2009. Having received a grant to spend 18 months assessing needs and building relationships with and among seniors in the neighborhood, the NORC leadership determined that improving mobility, broadly defined, should be a priority. The group wisely inferred that mobility in the home itself should be a starting point for any effort to assist elders to connect in the community.

Knowing that a foundation of trust was essential, a well-known and beloved community member (Crystal Woods) was hired to introduce the concept of home modification and repair to neighborhood seniors.  Senior members of the NORC advisory group began talking about the project with their neighbors. A few older residents consented to a “home safety” check by Crystal. This provided Crystal an opportunity to initiate conversations about possible things that could be done in the home to make it more comfortable or safe. Additional visits were provided by nurses from the only home care agency in the community. Local, trusted contractors were then introduced into the home by and with Crystal to begin estimating jobs. Budgets were developed for each project, without assuming that every recommendation would be either necessary or approved by the elder and their adult children (who would only be invited into the conversation at the request of the elder). When a handful of projects were ready to propose, the neighborhood seniors on the advisory committee were empowered to select what could be offered to each homeowner, given the overall project budget available ($45,000). Soon, contractor work began and it was revealing to see the contractors themselves developing close relationships with their customers, often doing more than the job required -all closely shepherded by Crystal, from beginning to end. Once a few seniors were “hooked” they told their friends and, within a period of four months, 19 homes were modified or repaired, several with significant improvements such as new bathroom floors and fixtures, new assistive features, ramps, and handrails!

This is what I call a “down home” solution to a major community challenge. And I use the word home in the best sense of the term.

Note: I hope you enjoy reading my blog. Your thoughts and additions to the conversation thread are most welcome. You can reply publicly right here on the blog. For additional reading on the meaning of home I suggest checking out: Graham Rowles, Claire Cooper Marcus, Wendell Berry, Scott Russell Sanders, Gaston Bachelard, and others. These authors are acknowledged and the ideas explored in more depth in the chapter entitled Being and Dwelling in Old Age, in my book Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America (Praeger 2009). For a discussion on the sense of home and place in long term care facilities, see my chapter entitled Homebodies: Voices of Place in a North American Community, in my edited volume Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture (SAR Press 2003).

In Indiana, we are working towards some state legislation called Hoosier Communities for a Lifetime. At the end of November, I am presenting a two day workshop on communication and dementia. For info about these things and more, just click back to the website at www.agingindiana.org

In October, I enjoyed the opportunity to participate in an amazing conference – Community Matters ’10. When I get a chance, I’ll blog a bit about the growing movement towards “heart and soul” planning.

Till then,

Phil


It’s not a vision. It’s a memory.

June 18, 2010

I had the privilege this week of observing a planning forum for Fifth Ward seniors, held at the JW Peavey Senior Center in central Houston. Programming for the predominantly African-American neighborhood is provided by the venerable Neighborhood Centers, Inc., an outstanding non-profit serving Houston for over 100 years.

Using the facilitation method known as Appreciative Inquiry, over 100 elders spent three hours reflecting on the strengths, not the weaknesses of the neighborhood. From small table workgroups they produced creative and powerful images of the kind of neighborhood that would enable individuals to remain in place as they age, typically focusing on an infrastructure that would enable people to move about with safety and security, accessing vital services and relationships with friends and family.

Though produced as a vision for the future, my friend Jane Bavineau wisely observed that the group was merely wanting to get back to the way it was, before drugs, prostitution, crime and disinvestment changed their stable, strong neighborhood.

So it’s not a vision. It’s a memory.

While it’s common, and usually a good thing, we “facilitators” of the world often engage groups in envisioning exercises to help create a template for actions that can lead to a better future. Perhaps we need to spend more time with memory. Unlike a dream, memory is based in a reality, albeit sometimes rose-colored by nostalgia. Being reality-based, moreover, the examination of memory can lead us to consider the real forces, political and economic, that led to negative (and positive) change… that led us away from home, so to speak. Asking how we arrived at this point is a worthwhile premise for discussing how we move forward. For how can we move forward without targeting the fundamental forces and power structures that keep us where we are?

This group at JW Peavey is indeed politically aware. They vote. They call their elected officials, en masse. They see that their efforts to create a good place to grow old means that everyone, all ages, will benefit.

Children have dreams. Elders have memories. How interesting that they produce a common image. How powerful  it would be to mobilize the energy of children’s dreams and the wisdom of elders’ memory to transform our communities “back to the future”.

Don’t leave yet… speaking of community planning, I want to draw your attention to several new tools recently published to our www.agingindiana.org website. With support from the Daniels Fund of Denver, Colorado, we engaged several national experts to produce tools organized around the Indiana state planning process we are coming to call Communities for a Lifetime. As access to mental health services emerged as a key issue in the Indiana AdvantAge Initiative survey, we have produced a community guidebook to enable citizens groups to learn the basics and mobilize around evidence-based solutions to improve the mental health of elders in their communities. Likewise, as many communities in Indiana are addressing home modification needs, we have produced “How to Develop a Home Modification Coalition.”  In addition, as communities begin to formulate social marketing campaigns to raise awareness about key issues, they can now take advantage of a Communications Guidebook, organized specifically around the AdvantAge Initiative’s 33 indicators of an elder-friendly community.

You might also find interesting, in the research reports, a new table illustrating similarities and differences in our survey results across urban to rural areas. And to top it off, this growing and rich resource of data for Indiana now includes GIS-producted visual images of variation across Indiana planning and service areas around some very interesting indicators – obesity, diabetes, awareness of services, etc. Check it out!

While you’re at it, visit our “founding” home page at the Center on Aging and Community, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University, to join the Facebook group, follow tweets, and link to other Center projects and websites. See http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=31.


Walking as a Narrative Activity

May 11, 2010

In response to an earlier blog (March 15), friend Lyman Orton, founder of the Vermont Country Store, picked up on my comment about remembering old ladies and their small grocery carts coming home from the Jewel Tea store in my neighborhood. “Are these things still for sale somewhere?”, I asked.  Well, indeed they are, and it’s no surprise that the Vermont Country Store is the place to find them, visit the catalogue here and voila’ . 

The Vermont Country Store is the source for much of the “good” from the good old days. While nostalgia is fun, the store sells more than nostalgia. Simpler toys,simpler appliances, simpler (and often organic) products are the store’s stock in trade. For Lyman, and his family, the Vermont Store has come to represent an attitude towards life and an attitude towards community that values local activism, livability, and philanthropy. Indeed, the Orton Family Foundation has heavily invested in citizen participation planning initiatives that tap what Lyman calls the “heart and soul” of the community. (See Orton Family Foundation) Not just for the sake of pitching clothes lines in his catalogue, Lyman is also at the front of the “right to dry” campaign, which fights against covenants and ordinances banning clothes lines from backyards. In light of our national energy/environmental crisis, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could wish away the sight and smell and fresh air experience of hanging clothes in the springtime breeze. I should mention, I suppose, that you can also find those great old wooden clothespins in the catalogue, you know… the ones with the metal spring (which, as a kid, we reversed to create neat matchstick guns). You can even order pins printed with the “right to dry” slogan!

Now those little grocery carts don’t work too well if there are no good sidewalks. How is it that sidewalks came to be seen as “amenities” rather than part of the essential community infrastructure. Nowadays, we have to incentivize developers to include sidewalks on both sides of the street. I guess that’s a step (backward) in the right direction, but it galls me that we have to reward behavior that should be expected.

But a sidewalk is, after all, a means to an end, a conveyance. We should also consider, as we think about the quality of our communities, whether the sidewalk leads to valued destinations and, perhaps more importantly for people with time (elders and children) the sidewalk provides the journey. Walking, and maybe I should say strolling, whether on foot or in a chair can be a rich narrative experience. As we walk, the surrounding environment, built and natural, becomes part of our sensuous world. Being physically open to the world, we see, we smell, we hear, we feel, we belong in a way not experienced in the automobile. The time it takes to move through the environment enables us to reflect, remember, retell the story of the neighborhood to ourselves. Over the years, I’ve watched that root gradually lift the pavement; I remember that old lady in the bonnet who used to live there and tend to her flowers; I recall with pain the cinders that would grind into your knees when you fell off your bike in the alley; I react  with fear at the house where my friend’s mean Dad was taken away in the police car, his mother on the porch bruised and sobbing.

Years ago, I came across an essay by Michel de Certeau called “Walking in the City.” (In the Practice of Everyday Life, 1984) He noted that people in positions of power (city authorities, planners, developers) tend to be enamored of the “birdseye” view of the city. Their grand maps, looking from above, are a testament to their control, to their ascension. Yet, the meaning of the city, the story (text) of the city, the life of the city  is produced by people walking. This is how the city is truly inhabited. As William H. Whyte said, “the meaning of a place is a product of the users, not the planners.” As I see it, the first step in planning and creating good places to grow old (and grow up) is a literal one – a step along the sidewalk.

Awhile back we invited kids in the local public housing complex to “walk the neighborhood” with us. Before we started, we had the kids draw maps of their neighborhood and, typically, we saw “elevation” maps – as if you were standing on the street and looking out. After walking the neighborhood, the kids began relating to the birdseye view. They were “ascending” to power, if you will, and beginning to see the larger context of connections among the parts. This is a good thing, where citizens understand that “maps have teeth”,  in the words of geographer Doug Aberley, and take back the human cartographic impulse  from the professional mapmakers, who haven’t done such a good job designing our towns lately.


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