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Everything’s Connected: Health, Healthy Aging, Community Design

Among the most encouraging trends in Smart Growth is an emerging consensus that good community design can address a bunch of issues at once. Which makes for much more comprehensive, cost-effective strategies to match the complexity of challenges before policy-makers.

Take, for instance, the agendas of separate entities concentrating exclusively on topics such as public health, environmental protection, energy conservation, and aging issues. Just in the last few months:

Those of us who fall under the category of “aging Boomers” are going to be particularly interested in how this confluence affects both our personal and professional lives. Thankfully, healthy aging is becoming an increasingly hot topic and seems likely to offer some of the most immediate opportunities for unifying strategies.

In blog posts below, we’ve reported on how senior co-housing might fit into planning for New Urbanist TNDs and infill. And we talked about DPZ’s landmark Lifelong Communities Charrette for the Atlanta Regional Commission here and here.

The complete report from the DPZ/ARC effort in Atlanta is now up on the ARC’s website, and it’s a must-see for planners and municipalities concerned about how to work aging-in-place planning into other goals – such as retrofitting dead malls and creating infill TODs. Check it out here.

With this convergence of Big Ideas gaining momentum, what’s the next step? Scaling up. The bad news in this good news/bad news scenario is that the challenges of demographics, energy depletion, and climate change are bigger than any effort to confront them so far. Listen particularly to the ARC’s Kathryn Lawler in the video below, as she joins other presenters from a recent Healthy Aging conference in Chapel Hill, NC.

— Ben Brown

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Atlanta, AARP, DPZ Attack Challenges of Aging in Place

The New Urbanist mantra for neighborhood planning is to go for compact, connected, and complete. Well, one critical component of completeness, that of making communities comfortable – and practical – for residents of all ages, has been sort of assumed by NU planners. Yet it’s taken an effort by the nation’s primary advocacy group for seniors, AARP, to make the idea of “Livable Communities” for aging in place a planning priority.

Can community design impact one's ability to age in place? The ARC is examining how.

Can community design impact one's ability to age in place? The ARC is examining how.

Integrating that priority into master planning for real places is getting its first major test with a Lifelong Communities Charrette in Atlanta, Feb. 9-17. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), which coordinates planning for the 10-county metro region, is behind the project, with AARP as one of its partners. Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ), led by Andres Duany, will provide the design and planning expertise. Together they hope to make solid headway on an issue that will only loom larger moving forward.

The charrette targets five sites in the region, selected for their potential to represent typical challenges to aging in place and for communities’ willingness to embrace walkable, mixed-use, mixed-generational solutions to those challenges. How DPZ approaches the project and the plans that emerge from it are likely to provide models for similar efforts in other places. Lots of other places. Here’s why:

In 2008, the oldest members of the Baby Boom Generation became eligible for Social Security. The whole generation, 76 million strong, will have turned 70 by 2034. And if we’re not able to reverse the dominant trend of suburban sprawl and its near exclusive reliance on automobiles for mobility, we will make aging gracefully at home in America difficult for even well-off seniors and all but impossible for the majority of older people.

Will our communities offer a vibrant array of possibilities for seniors or just a depressing descent into diminishing choices?

Will our communities offer a vibrant array of possibilities for seniors or just a depressing descent into diminishing choices?

Flunking the aging-in-place test not only means an increased burden for family care-givers and public programs (and therefore tax-payers); it also means the loss of good neighbors and productive citizens who could live independently longer in their own homes and neighborhoods if their communities planned for walkability, diverse housing choices, and mixed-use.

In addition to AARP, healthcare and public safety experts have been connecting the housing issue with aging in place challenges for most of the last decade. You can read working papers from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies here. Included among those papers is one on “Aging in Place: Coordinating Housing and Health Care Provision for America’s Growing Elderly Population” by Kathryn Lawler, who’s one of the planners of the Atlanta Regional Commission project.

We’ll follow the ARC/DPZ charrette in blog posts to follow. In the meantime, care to shake this story up a little?  Then share your comments below.

– Ben Brown

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