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Advancing the Livable Community Agenda

Posted Jan 26 2012 2:54pm
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 which 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, 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.

           


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