Advancing the Livable Community Agenda

January 26, 2012
old lady with canes

photo by emilio labrador, Rouens, France

Last week I had the privilege of meeting with a group of funders and a few organization folks in Phoenix, Arizona. As an EngAgement Initiative grantee *, the Arizona Grantmakers Forum has sponsored three gatherings to address critical issues emerging from the changing age demographics in the state. This last meeting focused on the concept of “communities for all ages” – territory that is familiar to many Arizonans due to the good work in several communities funded by the Arizona Community Foundation and, more recently, W.K. Kellogg and supported by Temple University’s Intergenerational Center.  We were introduced to remarkable projects in Tucson and in Ajo, Arizona ǂ.

Of significance in this effort to advance an important initiative is the partnership with the Maricopa Association of Governments, which hosted the meeting and is providing valuable technical assistance and leadership into the future as Maricopa County, and eventually the entire state, work to create more livable communities across the lifespan.

Dozens, perhaps scores of cities and towns around the U.S. (and globally, in fact) are enthusiastically embracing a “livable community” approach to making our places work for people of all ages and abilities. Often, livable community initiatives acknowledge that elders and people with disabilities benefit from livability improvements but, I would argue, these categories of experience are not often foregrounded in the community development model. Age and disability can both provide critically important lenses through which we can better understand the relationship between people and their environments. Until livability advocates can fully engage the broadest range of experience of those who have been marginalized by age or disability, we will continue to need “elder-friendly” and “inclusive community” planning  models. I should add childhood and youth to those categories of experience we need to better understand.

The Phoenix discussion was useful in helping identify some of the key questions and imperatives that will drive the livability agenda forward. I encourage blog readers to add their observations and proposed solutions to some of the dilemmas and opportunities.

  • With respect to aging in our communities, we should try to understand the forces that lead to age-segregation.

Unlike segregation by race, disability, or other forms of difference, age-segregation is not typically seen as a form of discrimination. (For purposes of discussion, I am not including age discrimination in employment in this argument.) As I mentioned in the discussion, “We have a kind of separate but equal thing going on with age-segregation.” As an academic might put it – we haven’t problematized age-segregation in our society. We all observe that youth, adults and elders, in many respects, go their separate ways and “hang together” with their own and, moreover, “that’s ok.”

But is it ok? What are the consequences of age-segregation? I would suggest they include:

  • Intergenerational misunderstanding, sometimes leading to conflict.
  • Loss of community memory.
  • Most importantly, the failure to tap incredibly valuable resources that benefit the entire community.

So what are the forces that lead to age-segregation?

  • Public policy in education that isolates children from adult society.
  • Public policy in housing that segregates age groups from one another through funding, design, marketing and suburban development patterns.
  • An economy that promotes transience through its dependence on the portability of labor and the lack of local economic opportunities for young adults.
  • Inadequate community design features that, as a consequence, limit physical access to mainstream environments by elders, people with disabilities, and non-drivers such as children.
  • And underlying all of these realities, fundamental cultural attitudes and presumptions that reinforce ageism while, at the same time, promoting niche marketing that segments age groups and leads to diverse lifestyles and, ultimately, age-specific  communication patterns and language.

What is perhaps interesting about overcoming age-segregation is that this may not be solved through incremental litigation and direct action (a civil rights approach) so much as by a collective, collaborative, community development strategy. If this is true, some important questions need to be asked at multiple levels…

What are the underlying conditions that will pre-dispose a community to success in creating a livable community for all ages and abilities?

            What leadership will be required?

            What degree of capital is required (social, cultural, natural, economic, human, physical, cultural)?

            When is a community “ready-to-proceed?”

            How do we recognize success?

            How do we sustain success?

What is the appropriate scale for our efforts?

            Neighborhood?

            Municipality?

            Region?

            State?

            Federal?

What are the points of leverage we should be addressing?

            Local policy and practice?

            State legislation?

            Federal legislation?

What forms of education and professional development will best prepare future leaders of this movement?

            Place-based education?

            Community organizing?

            Service-learning?

How can we cross boundaries in language, policy, funding, and practice in order to break down siloes that prevent cross-sector thinking and collaboration?

Can we identify and focus on budget-neutral changes in society that will lead to greater age-integration?

Do cultural blinders lead us to particular kinds of solutions, and make us miss others? Does one definition of livability hold up across cultures?

There are certainly other issues and themes to identify and address as we think about ways to create more livable communities – needed research, forms of advocacy, where programs fit into the infrastructure, best practices in design, resident participation strategies and others. Too much for one blog, I dare say, so I’ll close once again with two simple questions that represent the beginning and the end of effective livable community building:

As we look at multiple environments throughout our community, can we see “old people everywhere?” (after C. Alexander)

and

Can we answer the question: “Where do the children play?” (after Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens)

*Grantmakers in Aging (GIA) is an educational nonprofit membership organization for staff and trustees of foundations and corporations, and the only national professional organization of grantmakers active in the field of aging.

±  Communities for All Ages (CFAA) is a national initiative that helps communities address critical issues from a multi-generational perspective and promote the well-being of all age groups.

http://communitiesforallages.org


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.


Questioning Received Truths

September 20, 2010

Recently, I had the privilege of sitting in with a group of Kansas City elders as they discussed their concerns with the declining attendance at their respective senior centers. These wise folks are the advisors to the staff and leaders among their peers. They felt they offered decent programs, though admitted the luncheon fare was pretty uninspired. One old guy, only partly in jest, suggested, “We have a few dollars to work with. Why don’t we pay a few people to come in and play cards?”

I asked what brought them to their centers. To a person, their involvement was centered on creating a good program for those other old people. They didn’t come to get something for themselves, but to give to other people. I offered the modest suggestion that perhaps that’s a motivation that might drive others there. I suggested, “Why not think of a senior center as a place where elders come to give, not to take?”

A few weeks later I was pleased to hear that, following the discussion, one of the center directors organized a volunteer food bank event at her center and was thrilled at the participation.

Sometimes, turning something on its head produces surprisingly useful results. I believe this is a learned skill and that our organizations need to cultivate this practice. Actually, it may not be a learned skill as much as a process of unlearning – of deliberately abandoning our preconceptions in order to see things through a different lens. I remember the apocryphal tale of the moving truck that got stuck under the railroad overpass, stopping traffic for blocks and creating a minor crisis. Firefighters, traffic cops and engineers stood around trying to figure out how to extricate the truck from the bridge. “Concrete saws?” one asked. “No, levers and jacks”, another suggested. A shy little boy on his bike hovered around the margin of the crowd. Finally he stepped forward and asked, “Why don’t you let the air out of the tires?”

What can an organization do to incorporate this practice into the routine, to question received truths on a regular basis?

Listen deeply.

Observe closely.

Employ culture brokers (people who love to cross boundaries).

Exploit diversity (fight against monoculture).

Embrace the opposite.

Explore the absurd.

Play with words.

Wear your ideas inside out.

Humor yourself.

Develop kaleidoscopic vision.

Act the fool.

Play “what if…?”

In our field of aging studies and practice, a few examples come to mind:

“What if we saw not age but good food as a fundamental glue bringing people together?

               Mather’s Café  http://www.matherlifeways.com/iyc_mathersmorethanacafe.asp

“What if we saw Alzheimer’s not as a disease but as a disrupted relationship?”

               The Memory Bridge http://www.memorybridge.org/

“What if we stopped talking about transportation and started talking about mobility?”

               Walkable, livable communities

“What if we stopped talking about disabled people and started talking about disabling environments?”

               Universal design

Got any of your own?


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.


Aging in the Hood: Small Grants/Big Impact

January 29, 2010

January 29, 2010

Sitting in Buffalo Airport, waiting to return to Hoosierland having spent two fascinating days with citizens of 6 Buffalo and 2 rural Western New York neighborhoods. Called the Neighborhoods (Aging in Place) Initiative, the Health Foundation of Western and Central New York is supporting these grass roots groups with small grants to tackle real issues affecting seniors striving to age in place amongst their neighbors.

While I’ll likely be remembered as the idiot from Indiana who didn’t bring a coat to Buffalo, my role was to convene discussion around methods to engage stakeholders, including seniors and kids, with issues of aging in place. This was followed by small group meetings and a tour of several Buffalo neighborhoods. The diverse group of neighborhoods range from low income neighborhoods struggling with disinvestment and deteriorating housing stock, to middle class, first ring districts with fantastic 100 year old late Victorian and arts and crafts residences. Buffalo has outstanding architecture and landscaping, including work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Frederick Law Olmstead. Rural communities participating in the project include the village of Springville, in the town of Concord (a distinction in government units I was not aware of), and Pulteney, near Corning, south of Buffalo.

The neighborhoods have received $15,000 each to mount grass-roots organizing efforts to mobilize citizens and organizations around selected “indicators” drawn from the AdvantAge Initiative “four domains” model of an elder-friendly community. Their work will range from snow shoveling to weatherization; from transportation to relationship building – the kind of concrete goals that represent the marvelous ways that neighbors can support one another. I came away with much admiration for the creativity and compassion of these neighborhood community organizers- not a bad word in my lexicon!

I am excited by the national trend to support ground up planning and action in the field of aging. This can only help suplement the great work that agencies on aging and other service providers struggle to keep up with – a struggle that will never end for there will never be enough money for the government sector to address the needs.

The Administration on Aging is coming around to the same conclusion and, as a consequence, experimenting itself with new models for aging in place that spread the responsibilities beyond the traditional aging service network. Earlier in the week, as a member of the Technical Assistance Group, I had the pleasure of participating in the first meeting of the National Advisory Council for the AoA Community Innovations for Aging in Place project, which supports pilots in 14 cities and towns around the U.S., ranging from highly urban to highly rural. The shift in perspective from services to individuals to community development and organizing will be a fascinating thing to watch. What will be the role of Area Agencies on Aging in the future if they are to incorporate community development into their operational capacities? Are there other as yet undefined hybrid organizations out there that will provide leadership for the integrated, convergent strategic planning and action that will break down the siloes (transportation, housing, health care, land use) which, disconnected, preclude a more wholistic approach to aging in place?

As they say, we live in interesting times. Too bad this comes at just the moment when scarce resources dampen creativity, grand ideas, and national unity. What is different now, when compared to the 30’s, when grand ideas were just what the doctor ordered? I fear we have lost the memory of those times when we need it the most. You elders out there who lived through the depression…. we need your testimony!!! ( see my blog dated


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