Second National Building Museum Livable Communities event explores aging in the suburbs


The National Building Museum and AARP recently hosted Livable Communities: Boomers in the ‘Burbs: Aging in Place, a panel discussion which explored connections between neighborhood design, public health, and aging in place in suburban settings.

Moderated by Judy Willett, national director of the Village to Village Network, the overarching theme of the program was the importance of “planning for everyone.” If we can meet the needs of seniors, we can meet the needs of all, the panelists concluded.

Kelly Morphy, executive director at the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, set the stage with her vision of a healthy community for older Americans – including walkable streets, coffee shops, and independence from private vehicles. She noted that this vision will require overcoming many barriers, including the tendency to cater to the automobile. Today, when seniors lose the ability to drive themselves, they are at greater risk for declining physical health and social isolation.

June Williamson, associate professor in the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, gave specific examples of retrofits in suburban areas that allow for aging in place, and noted that there are many dynamics driving suburban retrofits. These include climate change, increasing rates of poverty, and public health concerns.

Williamson mentioned that there are ample opportunities across the country to retrofit late 20th century suburban fabric. She highlighted renovations of parking lots and big box stores (a Northgate Mall parking lot in Seattle and a former Safeway-turned-community center and apartments along the Columbia Pike Corridor in Arlington, VA); a commercial strip remade into a complete street corridor (the Columbia Pike form based code project in Arlington, VA); and a shopping mall made into a walkable town center (the Promenade of Wayzata in Wayzata, MN).

Kathryn Lawler, manager of aging and health resources at the Atlanta Regional Commission, discussed how Atlanta is working to promote strategies, policies, and financing decisions that allow liveable, transit friendly, and healthy communities. Lessons that Atlanta is learning include:

  • lifelong communities require good planning and forethought;
  • most of the communities in the Atlanta region are not lifelong communities;
  • accessibility must be comprehensive and community-wide, not just focused on specific projects; and
  • it will take acting big in order to meet the demands of the older demographic.

This will take a shift in the market, through quantifying the need for healthier communities, educating the marketplace, and identifying and removing policy and regulatory barriers.

In related events, the National Building Museum and AARP co-sponsored a panel on Livable Communities: Healthy Neighborhoods on September 12. Read about it and get a link to the video of that panel here.

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