How to sustain a livable, thriving community as the nation’s demographics change was the topic of discussion during the opening session of the 2023 AARP Livable Communities Economic Development Workshop held Sept. 27.
The free workshop, conducted through an online Zoom meeting, encouraged input from the public. The session kicked off with a conversation about how the features of a livable community, such as different modes of transportation, housing diversity and vibrant downtowns, can improve local economies.
It all starts with zoning, according to several panelists.
“We have a very outdated form of zoning where developers built around a nuclear-family lifestyle,” said panelist Marques King, an architect and urban planner from Detroit. “Our families today look very different than decades past. We need to update that concept.”
Multigenerational families and the need for diverse, affordable housing for all income levels are the factors driving a successful community blueprint.
One important element is “middle housing,” a term that refers to multi-family or clustered housing that is compatible with single-family homes.
“We have a lot of single-family zoning that pervades most communities and when multi-family residential is desired, it has to go through an onerous rezone process and that leads to higher density residential to pay for that process,” said Chris French. “These are some of the reasons why we do not see middle housing development. In many communities there really isn't a zone for middle housing.”
Being able to walk to shops, restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, schools and transit, is one way to knit a community together, the panelists agreed. Fewer cars, more walking and congregating in green spaces foster neighborhood connections, involvement and even a greater sense of safety, they said.
“What’s on your Main Street?” asked Toccarra Nicole Thomas, the director of land use and development at Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit which advocates for more livable communities. “Just start there. Does Main Street have the necessary components for what you need on a daily basis? Work with what is already present and then develop and expand from there.”
Making a community more walkable, and not just with sidewalks, was a common theme for connecting neighborhoods to towns. That includes trails, bike paths, and green spaces with areas for walking and resting, she said.
“If seniors are able to walk to businesses rather than drive, they save on transportation expenses and the need for additional vehicles and maintenance costs. They can have more disposable income to expend in their communities and among small businesses,” said Nancy Copeland, an attendee.
For older residents, proximity to health-care facilities is crucial.
“The boomers moving out of the large, spread-out houses they raised their families in and moving to single-level, two-person residences near health care [complexes/campuses] will change things up in the housing market over the next decades,” said Nathan Carr, an attendee.
Sprawl undermines healthy neighborhoods, Thomas told the AARP-sponsored workshop. “Sprawl is costing your community” in terms of climate effects, gas costs, wear on vehicles and non-productive time in traffic.
She said the single most important thing individuals can do is to become advocates for their neighborhoods and towns - contact planning and zoning departments, speak at town hall meetings and let elected officials know the goal should be for less traffic and more transit and walkable alternatives. “Advocate and mentor for smart growth,” she added.
Another participant, Naida Miranda, said, “Livable and age-friendly communities should be a global initiative in all cities. Thanks, AARP, for making it happen!”
A recording of this workshop will be posted to the AARP Livable Communities website soon. Watch this page for the materials and subscribe to the AARP Livable Communities e-newsletter to stay up to date on our latest resources and opportunities.
This story is provided by AARP Virginia. Visit the AARP Virginia page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.