Atlanta Forward, Aging: Boomers force form to follow function

Our view: Many services will be affected as population ages; time to look at them now.

We certainly shouldn't fold up our treadmills in resignation, but as a region, we should acknowledge this demographic inevitability.

Aging's not the same as aged, though. The energetic spirit and willingness to flout convention that's marked boomers' march through life should be applied to community planning in our counties, towns and neighborhoods. Going forward, such an approach will help us set bricks and mortar in ways that best serve a maturing marketplace. It's something for families, governments and builders to think about.

The Atlanta Regional Commission published some take-pause statistics in its recent "Lifelong Communities" report. The ARC reports that the older adult population is expected to double between 2000 and 2015. By 2030, one in five Atlanta region residents will be older than 60.

Those numbers point attention toward a formidable challenge that's gathering steam. An aging population will affect housing, infrastructure, education, transportation — in short, just about everything. The Lifelong Communities project looks at community design, applying a set of goals to five local case study projects, stretching from Conyers to Mableton. The effort sought to bring together parties ranging from service providers to architects and transportation experts.

The ARC's smart to recognize that the traditional assembly-line process of seeing a project from drafting board to hammer-and-nail work may function fine for traditional projects, but is perhaps less effective for more-radical design concepts.

It makes sense that planners, private developers and citizens consider a post-cul-de-sac world and what it would look like set among the rolling hills and tree-shaded subdivisions that define much of the Atlanta region.

So what makes the "Lifelong Communities" proposals stand out amongst more-conventional development plans ?

The Urbanism concept in the ARC's report seeks to develop neighborhoods that harken back to Main Street U.S.A.— places where houses are built close to streets and garages are banished to backyards. Wide sidewalks allow kids, adults and even the healthy elderly to walk to nearby shops and restaurants.

A key theme is that people can remain in the same neighborhood as they grow old, segueing from single-family home to condo to senior living options, as needed.

The concept is intriguing in some ways. The proposal for DeKalb County's Toco Hills area, for example, encompasses street redesigns aimed at relieving traffic clogs around the intersection of North Druid Hills and Clairmont roads.

That's a smart effort, since it acknowledges our intimate relationship with the automobile, regardless of whether we park them in front of, or behind, our houses. And higher-density housing should appeal to a big subset of aging boomers, as should the prospect of running errands without getting into a car.

Still, it's a significant stretch to imagine vast swaths of low-density suburban Atlanta housing or strip malls being plowed under anytime soon for blocks of rowhouses and street-level shops. And getting Atlantans to decrease, however slightly, our dependency on cars will be no small task, as people who've had to persuade elderly relatives to hang up their keys might attest.

To address such hurdles, the ARC smartly built its plan around five pilot projects.

Now's the time to consider them.

The current recession, if good for nothing else, gives us a breather to take stock, study plans and, more importantly, honestly assess future community needs.

As architect and planner Andres Duany told an ARC audience recently, "This recession has given us a chance to think. This is a wonderful opportunity to try new ideas."

None of us are getting younger, and development policies should be flexible enough to recognize that fact. That will help developers invest in and build neighborhoods that help aging Atlantans remain active and vital for as long as humanly possible.

— Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

In coming weeks and months, we will look at major issues Atlanta must address in order to move forward as the economy recovers. Look for "Atlanta Forward," which will identify these discussions. Send comments to atlantaforward@ajc.com.

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