Longevity is one of the greatest gifts of the 20th century. Between 1900 and 2000, life expectancy increased from 47 years to 78. While long life offers us the promise of travel, time with grandchildren and chances to reinvent ourselves, where we live can turn the opportunity into a significant and costly challenge.
For 60 years, development trends and regulations ignored the long-term consequences of building communities as if we would never grow old. Unfortunately, these 1950s policies leave us isolated when we can no longer drive, unable to downsize in our old neighborhood, keep fit without first getting in a car or find supportive housing or nursing homes that we don't fear.
Like the rest of the country, metro Atlanta is rapidly growing older. By 2030, one out of five residents will be over the age of 60, up from one in 10 in 2000. Too often, however, today's senior housing is age-segregated and located on the fringes of existing communities. While this may work for some, the baby boom population demands more choices.
The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) has helped shape how we grow as a region and how we meet the needs of older residents for more than 40 years. ARC's Livable Centers Initiative has helped create vibrant, walkable town and activity centers.
Now, to address the demographic imperative of an exploding older population, ARC asked the question: "What more will it take to create real lifelong communities, places where individuals can live throughout their lives?"
Earlier this year, ARC partnered with a multidisciplinary team of experts led by world-renowned architect and planner Andres Duany of Duany Plater-Zyberk. During a workshop involving more than 1,500 metro residents, ARC explored how to transform five sites around the Atlanta region into lifelong communities.
What did we learn? Lifelong communities require thoughtful planning, appropriate design and targeted programming. They must be connected, with diverse housing stock, pedestrian and transit access, opportunities for social interaction, neighborhood-based retail and services and incentives for healthy living. Designs for curb cuts to doorknobs must reflect the needs of an aging body. Programming, including the timing of bus routes and traffic signals and the availability of supportive services, must be redesigned to meet the needs of a 21st-century older adult.
They will offer housing choices in walkable neighborhoods where it's possible to be physically active and downsize when necessary, where residents have convenient access to services, restaurants, drugstores, clinics and options for getting around without having to drive. When that happens, metro Atlanta will be ahead of the curve.
Charles "Chick" Krautler is director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.
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