Lifetime Community Districts

What would it take to create a neighborhood where, as a child you can play on your street and around your block, where you know by name people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and abilities because you meet them and talk with them on your way to school on foot or by bike? How can we create a neighborhood where, as an adult, you can walk or take public transit to work, to the movies or to go on vacation, and you have innumerable friends and activities within a few minutes’ bike ride? And how can we create a neighborhood where as an elder, you still have neighborhood friends you knew since childhood, neighbors stop by to check all is well if they don’t see you at your usual haunts, and you still enjoy a high quality of life because you can walk or take your power wheelchair the short distance to the coffee house, the grocery store, the doctor, to play chess in the park, or to visit your grandchildren?

This is what neighborhoods used to be like. We killed that diverse, independent and community-spirited quality of life when we created car-dependent suburban housing.  But visionary efforts are under way to revive complete neighborhoods hospitable for people at all stages of life, and abilities.

In October, Phil Stafford, Director of the Center on Aging and Community at Indiana University, convened a Think Tank on creating a Lifetime Community District (LCD). A “Lifetime Community” is defined as a place that promotes physical, social, mental and economic wellbeing for persons of all abilities, across the entire lifespan. An LCD is a zoning and public policy innovation created to incentivize and influence community development and redevelopment initiatives that promote livability for all ages and abilities.

The think tank was asked to consider creating an LCD along the B-Line in Bloomington, a rail to trail project completed through the central city in 2010. With the trail as the pedestrian/bike “arterial” spine, the district is envisioned as a chain of “15 minute neighborhoods”, stretching approximately 20 blocks north to south, and 4-6 blocks east to west.

The interdisciplinary group of planners, public officials, neighborhood leaders, developers, and experts in public health, child-, elder- and disability-friendly communities, met in Bloomington City Hall. They toured the district on foot and by van, heard presentations on community planning for children, elders and disabled persons, and discussed how these special concerns overlap. Using concepts rooted in comprehensive community development, they brainstormed and sketched around the district map, to begin to envision a district that would be hospitable for all ages and abilities. Special attention was paid to creating environments that bring everyone together for their mutual benefit.

In North America, we have separated society into age- and ability-specific, socio-economic-specific and ethnic-specific silos using simplistic zoning tools such as retirement developments, gated compounds, university campuses, and business districts. Old and young no longer live in the same world. The well-to-do do not have to acknowledge the poor. Sporty young adults do not glimpse older, less agile folk who might uncomfortably remind them that they, one day, may no longer be so limber. And yet, we do all live in the same world, and we need to understand how it is to walk in another’s shoes – not only to give aid to the other, but for our own spiritual growth and well-being.

It is especially important for children to grow up in a community of diverse ages and abilities. Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) pointed out that a suburban youth may leave home never having taken care of a baby or someone who is ill, or “comforted or assisted another human being who really needed help… No society can long sustain itself,” he asserted, “unless its members have learned the sensitivities, motivations, and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings.”

Kids need to grow up within a network of people of all ages, and with a diversity of familiar adult resources, stressed Peter Benson, author of All Kids Are Our Kids (2006).  “Instead of embedding our children in webs of sustained relationships, we segregate them from the wisdom and experience of adults, raising them in neighborhoods, institutions, and communities where few know their names.” He called for us “to reconstruct our towns and cities as intergenerational communities. Cross-generational contacts would be frequent and natural.” Lifetime Community Districts can make this happen.

A Lifetime Community District is a zoning and public policy innovation created to incentivize and influence community development and redevelopment initiatives that promote livability for all ages and abilities.

Key elements of an LCD include:

  • Public participation
  • Form based codes (mixed-use development, perhaps LEED-ND)
  • Inter-generational contact
  • Universal design (accessibility and visitability)
  • Multiple affordable housing options (home mods, accessory units, co-housing, congregate living with services, cottages, group shared living, Greenhouses, etc.)
  • Complete streets
  • Walkability
  • Connectivity of residential to commercial and other amenities
  • Multiple affordable mobility options (incl circulators, slow moving electric vehicles, etc.)
  • Affordable supportive and health services that promote aging in place
  • Sociality and access to Third Places
  • Self-sufficiency (social capital generation and Work/Live housing options)
  • Access to fresh food, parks and exercise
  • Sense of place intangibles (memory, beauty, creativity, conviviality)

This is a model for neighborhood development that brings together concerns for the special needs of our most vulnerable groups – children, elders, disabled persons – with the planning principles of True Urbanism, New Urbanism, and Smart Growth. Lifetime Community Districts can transform cities, towns and neighborhoods. They deserve all our support. For more information contact Dr. Phil Stafford.