Atlanta’s Lifelong Communities Charrette Delivers the Goods

Atlanta’s landmark charrette on planning for “Lifelong Communities” wrapped on February 17, with an Andres Duany presentation to a downtown auditorium packed with some 500 people.

A crowd of nearly 500 gathers for the Lifelong Communities charrette closing presentation.

A crowd of nearly 500 gathers for the closing presentation of the ARC's Lifelong Communities charrette.

On February 11, the opening night of the weeklong event,  Kathryn Lawler, who coordinated the ambitious project for the Atlanta Regional Commission, explained that one key goal for the charrette was to explore this question: “What does a community look like that does not have barriers to growing older?”

See her introductory remarks and Duany’s opening presentation here.

During the week, Duany’s DPZ team expanded the borders of their assigned model projects in five Metro locations and added a sixth, a retrofitted town center for a dying suburban mall. The core strategy was New Urbanism 101, “completing” neighborhoods with street connections, parks and plazas, and provision for node-to-node transit links. The idea, Duany told his audience, is to reassemble the fabric of community scattered by suburban planning and coding and give back to residents of all ages and incomes the full range of choices that make for quality of life.

“Suburbia is full of false choices,” said Duany. “It provides only the illusion of choice. Everybody drives everywhere.”

Ben Brown, up close and technological with Andres Duany.

Ben Brown, up close and technological with Andres Duany.

What gave the DPZ/ARC/AARP charrette its distinction was in the way Duany’s team turned talk about the convergence of livability principles into actual plans for implementing them in actual places. The first days of the Atlanta charrette were devoted to hearing from experts not only on design, planning, and coding, but also specialists in public health, physical accessibility, aging issues, and demography. For a day-by-day report on those presentations, go here.

One of those who wanted to make sure her group’s views were reflected in the convergence was accessibility advocate, Eleanor Smith, founder of Concrete Change. “Most planners think of the ‘disabled and elderly’ as a clump of existing people who need a new place to live. Which is true to a certain extent,” said Smith, “but the big fact not taken into account by current planning and housing construction is that the way disability usually happens is that formerly able-bodied people who live in inaccessible houses have to move because their houses and neighborhoods can no longer accommodate them.”

There’s likely to be a growing sense of urgency for addressing aging in place. The graying of the Boomer generation will assure that. Already signs of nervousness are emerging among older Americans in existing neighborhoods. In a recent survey by Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends, researchers found people generally satisfied with the places in which they lived. But the demographic category most likely to register dissatisfaction was the senior demo.

The effort to fit so many priorities into unified approaches was not without conflict. Pressed for time and space, the Atlanta Regional Commission and DPZ restricted studio access and risked alienating those who saw proposals sketched for their neighborhoods without their participation. Atlanta-area urban planner Don Broussard was among those who were bothered by at least some of the ideas he saw.

“The prototype dwellings for the elderly displayed by Andrés showed great merit,” said Broussard. “Also, the plans for at least three of the six charrette sites (Mabelton, Conyers, and Gwinnett Place Mall) provoked little controversy, since they create little if any potential for displacement of existing residential neighborhoods. The new thoroughfares planned by DPZ for the towns of Mabelton and Conyers could be accomplished under existing subdivision laws gradually over time and therefore involve willing sellers or owners of private lands desiring to redevelop. In contrast, Williamsburg [ed: the DeKalb site at Toco Hill] involves elderly renters at the mercy of a single landlord who wants to redevelop now.

“How can a plan that wipes out hundreds of affordable apartments in a decent landscape accommodate ‘aging in place’? It can’t,” said Broussard.

In his final presentation, Duany answered critics by acknowledging the limitations of a format designed to turn out provocative concepts in record time. While the proposals provide realistic options for real places, said Duany, they were created without consideration for the broader context best accommodated in an entirely open charrette.

“If you want us to take these ideas to the next level,” he said, “we would want to come back and do real charrettes,” with residents in attendance. And if adopted plans displaced residents, he added, “there must be a way of returning them to the community” when it’s redeveloped.

Check back here often. We’ll continue to follow news on the integration of aging in place with neighborhood planning around the country. And let us know about how your community or your project addresses the aging of the population. Email us at ben(at)

– Ben Brown

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