From Complete Streets to Complete Communities: Moms Needed

December 10, 2012

 

Fred Kent, the founder of the Project for Public Spaces, spoke in Indianapolis last week, at the annual Indiana Governor’s Conference for People with Disabilities. PPS is an incredibly valuable and creative organization, now engaged with cities around the world as they re-design public spaces that promote harmony, beauty, sociality and peace. As the conference was focusing on livability this year (in itself a creative twist from the ordinary), Fred was discussing the concept of “complete streets” – all the rage these days in the healthy and sustainable community movement. He suggested that we need to take the complete streets discussion (streets designed for all forms of transportation) a step further (no pun intended). He argued that a street is not really complete until it becomes a destination and not merely a thoroughfare. Think about the greatest streets in the world for a moment, and you’ll realize what he’s talking about.

It got me thinking about what the next logical step would be. I awoke in the middle of the night recently with the revelation – we need to move the discussion from complete streets to complete communities. What would a complete community look like? A partial answer came by way of a meeting a few days later…

I was in a meeting with our local (and terrific) Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan the other day. We got to talking about my mom, who was among a group of older women that Mark considered matriarchs of the local Democratic Party. (My mom died in 2007 at age 89.) He noted that when he was starting out in politics, it was like he had a “bunch of moms” to guide and support him in his career.

His comment was a perfect segue into our agenda topic: the qualities of a “lifetime community.” Yes, in a great community, a complete community, young people have access to mentors. In a community that attracts young people from elsewhere, these mentors become surrogate parents and grandparents. A community that attracted young professionals without grounding them in relationships with elders (who is anybody with local experience) would be falling short. Certainly, yuppies should and do enjoy their peers, especially after work. But a complete community engages young professionals with experience. This doesn’t mean that elders are always right. In fact, much of their wisdom comes from failure, not success. When I think of the benefits of age and of staying put, I would point to the “bridging capital” represented by the network of relationships accumulated by people with experience. Young people hanging out together build a strong base of “bonding capital” – the camaraderie that derives from being part of the gang. But, as important and satisfying that may be, the gang needs bridging capital – it needs connections to other resources and influences outside of the group. Often, these connections can be made through those people who know everybody and whom everybody knows – a community’s elders. That’s what President Obama was talking about when he said “You didn’t make that.”

I sometimes wonder if the tragic disappearance of a young IU student by the name of Lauren Spierer couldn’t have been avoided if she’d had a strong relationship with a surrogate mom or grandma here in Bloomington. She bonded strongly with her peers. She needed a bridge to someone outside of her network. Lauren’s mother, visiting town recently, noted how she wished she could simply pass along her own wisdom born of loss to those women she saw walking alone at night in this college town. As a community, we failed to protect Lauren. Can we design more complete communities that provide the stability derived from  intergenerational relationships? Mars may need moms but we need them even more desperately.

 

 

 

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Small Town/Home Base

December 4, 2011
old artist mentors young

from The Art of Aging: A Celebration of Old Age in Western Art, 1987, McKee, P.L. and Kauppinen, H. New York: Insight Books

(Note: Scroll to the end for information about an upcoming national conference call on Communities for a Lifetime)

My town of Bloomington likes to claim John Mellencamp as one of its most famous citizens, but Mr. Mellencamp was actually born and raised in Seymour, Indiana, down Highway 65 about 50 miles. So when he sings about “small town”, he’s not talking about Bloomington. Relative to Seymour, Bloomington was the big city when John decided to bring his band to the Bluebird cafe. I think he was known as Johnny Cougar back in those days. As a new graduate student in anthropology at Indiana University, I remember Johnny Cougar flyers on telephone posts but can’t say I made the clubs in those years (or now for that matter).

Seymour’s loss was Bloomington’s gain. But it’s an old story, as creative young people have always seen “getting out of town” as the first step to success in life. When the small town doesn’t provide opportunities for young people, you either leave or you feel trapped.

And there’s another thread to this story. The old people? They remain behind.

So what makes this old story different now?

The scale of the issue: small towns provide fewer and fewer opportunities for young people and there are more and more and more older people. This is the central point of Kimon Koulet’s wise comment to my last blog. Kimon is a planning professional in a New Hampshire region with a median age of 45.2, older than the state of Maine, the oldest state in the country. Kimon echoes comments I have heard from many small town Mayors and public officials. They are searching for new economic strategies that can deter the forces that stretch and snap the geographic ties between youth and age.

I am aware of but a few isolated attempts to turn the perceived burden of an aging population into an economic engine. But I believe the conversation has started.

One approach emphasizes the older person as consumer. This is central to “retiree retention and attraction” strategies, characteristically but not entirely, practiced by tourism promoters in southern states. Knowing that prior touristic behavior is a strong predictor of relocation and resettlement, several of these programs receive direct support from state departments of tourism (Mississippi and Louisiana, for example). More recently, towns in the New West have positioned themselves as retirement destinations, often beating out the traditional “sunny climes” model of the previous generation of retirees. Truly, entire regions in the New West have been transformed from extractive to service-based economies, organized around the needs and portfolios of a retired population.

A second approach emphasizes the older person as a patient. I am stretching the point, but, in my experience, I see public officials eagerly competing to receive the economic benefits of the latest institutional response to the health care needs of the elderly – assisted living, long term nursing facilities, and shiny new hospitals.

All well and good, but narrowly focused and missing the real opportunities to organize local economies not around the passive needs of older adults but around their productive potential. This is the town I am looking for and I urge readers to help me find the model…

It’s a town that actively cultivates and supports “elderpreneurs”, through development of work/live environments on newly enriched downtown main streets. It provides start-up consultancies (has an active SCORE chapter). At the same time, it supports elders in the creative class to mentor and hire young people into their professions and businesses. It creates a vibrant downtown culture that integrates, rather than segregates elders from hip young professionals.  It doesn’t support a rave venue and it doesn’t create a downtown senior center that is off-putting to young people. One of the hippest places I ever enjoyed is the Center for Southern Folklore in the heart of downtown Memphis. Talk about integrating old and young! 

It’s a town that attracts new industries that derive particular benefit from a mature work force interested in part-time and/or seasonal employment, with flexible benefits and a socially enticing climate.

It’s a town that makes it easier to get by on a lower level of attachment to the mass market. Because it’s compact, walkable and bikeable, one can seriously consider abandoning that costly auto. Because it celebrates and cultivates creativity at all ages, it is a town that is beautiful, exciting, unpredictable, and stimulating. Because so many new workers in the digital age (young and old) can work from “anywhere”, this town is totally wired – local and global at the same time.

I am guessing there are elements of this town in many areas of the country. What I am looking for is the town that has put all of this together, intentionally and comprehensively, and has accumulated evidence that it works – that it creates a local economy that keeps and attracts creative and productive citizens and future citizens, both young and old. If you find one, call me!!!

Shameless Plug: Join me and others in an interesting discussion of these topics in the next Community Matters phone call, Dec. 8, 2011: http://www.communitymatters.org/communities-all-ages


Sustaining your Impact: Can you answer the “in order to” question?

July 8, 2011

Isn’t it great working in the not-for-profit universe? Our clients tell us we are wonderful. Our professional organizations spend much effort in annual ceremonies of self-congratulation. Our mothers tell their friends how proud they are. The work itself provides ample personal rewards for the good that we do. All well and good, as it should be. But there are dangers out there! With these factors propping us up, we risk becoming complacent about our agency’s position in the hierarchy of local organizations.

It’s not enough to know that we are good. We have to ask ourselves if those who have a stake in our organization’s future agree and act on our behalf. Developing a plan for sustainability comes down to a few basic questions that must be answered:

Instead of asking “are we good?” ask “what is our impact?”

Instead of asking “how can we sustain our program?” ask, “how can we sustain our impact”?

Who really has a stake in these impacts and how can they help?

Assessing impact is, essentially, program evaluation. You are trying to assemble evidence regarding the change that has occurred as a result of your actions and arranging for audiences who will be convinced by the argument.  You are trying to answer the “in order to” question: “We do what we do in order to…” and then trying to prove the connection works.

Some of your stakeholders may have high standards regarding the evidence they need to see that you are producing the outcomes you claim. Other audiences may be persuaded by softer criteria, individual stories of people whom you have helped, for example. When tying your sustainability plan to the interests of your stakeholders, peg your investment in evaluation to the stakeholders’ expectations. In reality, you may have several different groups of stakeholders (or even individual stakeholders) whose support you need. Hence, your evaluation products might vary and target different audiences.

The line between evaluation and marketing can become rather thin, but never eschew integrity or honesty in communicating what you do. Make valid claims. Qualify them as needed when they don’t demonstrate the standards of “evaluation science.” If you are using stories, great, but don’t claim that’s what happens every time. Use stories that 1) illustrate the kinds of situations you address, 2) how to think about them and 3) how your understanding of those situations drives the work. What you are constructing is a picture of your organization for people who need to understand what you are trying to do.

One last thought… think about impact in two ways:

1)     What is your positive impact?

2)     What would happen if you did nothing or your agency went away?  (the Tea Party threat)

and through two lenses…

1)     What is your impact on the lives of individuals?

2)     What is the impact on the neighborhood or community?

If you can construct an argument that, not only are you helping individuals, but that the surrounding community benefits, so much the better. Helping elders age in place with home modifications and repairs can help stabilize home values in the neighborhood. See the thinking here?

I’ll touch on the issue of sustainability in future blogs as well.


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