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“Get Old, Live Better” Panel Explores Strategies for Developing Age-Friendly Communities

By Jubi Headley
January 28, 2013


Transportation and pedestrian mobility, zoning strategies, and social/civic engagement were the predominant themes echoed throughout the “Get Old, Live Better” panel discussion at the Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting. Sponsored by Pfizer, Inc., the world’s largest research-based pharmaceutical company, the hour-long discussion explored strategies and best practices to prepare for the coming wave of older adults, and more broadly, to inspire more age-friendly community development. “With advances in healthcare, it is possible for more people to live better as they live longer. Our nation’s older populations will more than double by 2050 and the needs of our neighborhoods and communities will change. Pfizer is joining The U.S. Conference of Mayors to help inspire ideas that may help our communities prepare for older adults and enhance the lives of people of all ages,” said Pfizer Policy External Affairs and Communications Executive Vice President Sally Susman in explaining the panel’s concept.

External Affairs and Communications Executive Vice President Sally Susman in explaining the panel’s concept.

Moderated by Grantmakers in Aging CEO John Feather, Ph.D., the panel included mayors Greg Ballard of Indianapolis, Sly James of Kansas City (MO), and Greg Stanton of Phoenix, as well as New York Academy of Medicine Policy and Planning Senior Vice President Ruth Finkelstein.

The panel eschewed the normal question and answer session at the end of the panel, in favorite of innovative audience response system (ARS) technology. Each member of the audience was provided with a keypad, through which they could respond to a series of questions, or polls, conducted throughout the hour-long discussion. Results of each poll were displayed within seconds of each audience member recording their response, allowing for these audience polls to shape and become a part of the dialogue in real time.

Throughout the discussion a number of themes were explored, including:

Pedestrian Mobility. Finkelman helped frame the conversation by noting that, “The enemy of healthy aging is social isolation.” In order for older adults to be engaged, they need to be mobile, as pedestrians, first and foremost. In Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Phoenix alike, each city has a variety of strategies have been employed to enhance mobility for all residents, from improving sidewalks and pedestrian thoroughfares to installing bike lanes. James noted, for example, that in Kansas City, they are exploring permeable concrete for their sidewalks. By definition, permeable or pervious concrete is a special type of concrete that allows water and air to pass through it. This results in less puddling, and therefore less cracking and degradation of the surface, making sidewalks safer for pedestrians. Permeable concrete also has significant environmental benefits.

Downtown Development. The mayors have found that the amenities that attract younger residents to cities are similarly desired by older adults. Chief among these is a desire to return to a culturally and socially vibrant downtown core to live. This recognition is woven into the fabric of each mayor’s development efforts, and each mayor recognizes that zoning can be an important tool in spurring the type of development that is attractive to all residents, older adults included. Ballard gave an example of this in Indianapolis, where the city has developed the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an urban bike and pedestrian path that connects neighborhoods, Cultural Districts and entertainment amenities, and serves as the downtown hub for the entire central Indiana greenway system.

Zoning as a tool to develop age-friendly communities. The mayors recognize and embrace zoning as a tool to encourage the type of development that encourages vibrant, age-friendly communities. For example, each city is exploring light rail, at various levels, as a means to not only enhance mobility, but encourage development, particularly in the downtown core. Stanton noted that Phoenix has invested significant resources in a light rail project; however, given the current economy, they haven’t seen the resulting development historically associated with light rail projects. And overall, financing and legislative challenges often pose significant hurdles to light rail projects. However, Stanton noted that zoning regulations can be adapted to provide important and attractive incentives to encourage the types of development that cities need, and that results in better communities for older adults and all residents.

Collaboration and Civic Engagement. The mayors stressed that one of the keys to successful development is collaboration—among agencies within the city, among cities and communities within the region, and among residents. To this end, all the panelists stressed that older adults should be engaged to help develop the strategies and solutions to the issues that they themselves face. Older adults are often an invaluable and untapped resource, not only on aging issues but on community issues at large, and by and large are willing and able to actively participate in civic activities.

Finkelman suggested that one measure of the successful development of an age-friendly community would be one in which there’s less of a dichotomy between the younger or “creative” class of residents and the older adults in a community. Aging means something different than it ever has before, she noted—a person who is 60 years old today can reasonably expect to live another 20 to 30 years—and first and foremost, they want to be able to live as themselves, as she put it. It’s our mutual responsibility as the public sector, Finkelman stressed, to create an environment that lets people live as themselves in this way—that lets people engage in all of the activities and lifestyles they’ve enjoyed throughout their lives.

Resources. Finkelman notes that, as the WHO affiliate for aging population, one of the mandates of the New York Academy of Medicine is to guide cities in the development of age-friendly policies and programs, and they’re happy to engage in these conversations. More information is available online at www.agefriendlynyc.org.