Notes from the AARP Livable Communities Conference

aarp livable communities conference photo

The 5th Annual AARP Livable Communities Conference, held November 14-16, 2017, in Dallas, was an opportunity for local leaders and community advocates from across the U.S. to come together to share ideas, best practices and solutions for making towns, cities and communities more livable for people of all ages.

What is a livable community? Picture healthy, walkable, vibrant neighborhoods and downtowns; cities in which older adults are active and engaged; and communities where health concerns are addressed in a holistic way. This is what we’re working toward in Austin with the implementation of the Age-friendly Austin Action Plan.

Representatives from the City of Austin Commission on Seniors, Capital City Village, AustinUP and other local thought leaders attended the event – and we learned a lot.

The Longevity Economy
In her welcome address, Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, talked about the power behind the Longevity Economy. She reminded us that the Longevity Economy is made up of older adults continuing to contribute to the economy by staying in the workforce, maintaining their role as consumers, participating in the gig economy (as rideshare drivers, Airbnb hosts, etc.), staying engaged in their community as volunteers, and demonstrating their political power by voting. (Voters aged 50+ made up 56% of the electorate in 2016.)

Note: For those who would like to learn more about the Longevity Economy, Joe Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab, has just published a book called The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market. In it he describes how businesses can prepare for an aging world. We have posted an article about the book here.

Improving Transportation Options
A number of conference speakers focused on transportation issues. Their advice to communities for improving transportation and transportation options include:

Build partnerships with other jurisdictions. There is value in pulling together mayors of cities within a region to work on transportation issues. Focus on partnership, transparency, coordination and trust. We should strive for alignment (actual and philosophical) across community partnerships.

Establish a common vocabulary. For example, even the phrase “complete streets” may not mean the same thing in rural communities as it does in cities. Connotations may vary. Changing the terminology to “safe streets” may overcome this. We need to use words and phrases that convey the common interests and universal goals associated with a more connected community.

Harness technology, but don’t get in the way. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) could lead to an explosion in the number of trips on our roadways. The Senate is currently considering an autonomous vehicle bill that will allow car manufacturers to put AVs on the road, with no coordination with local government, police, etc. about pricing and policy. We need to pay attention, and encourage plans that will move people, not cars. Communities also need to create policies that are density-based, to encourage more and cheaper options for trips with multiple riders. Right now, many fees that support roads and infrastructure are tied to gas taxes, but as the technology advances, AVs and EVs (electric vehicles) will need to pay their fair share. Robin Chase, Transportation Entrepreneur and one of the conference’s keynote speakers, provided some really good insight.

Focus on equality. The largest barrier to economic equality is access to transportation. On average in the U.S., 18% of household income is spent on cars. For lower-income families, it’s 40%.

Other statistics:
–Transportation generates 26% of the world’s CO2 emissions.
–On average, 30% of a city’s real estate goes to cars. In Houston, it’s 65%.

The walk has to be as good as the drive. Another keynote speaker, Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, said that more people will choose to walk if the experience is useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

Other notes from his presentation:
–We will need to reverse a huge amount of planning and zoning to encourage walkable communities.
–People drive faster on wider streets.
–Buffered bike lanes (i.e., buffered by parked cars) is one example of what it’ll take to get older adults on bikes.
–Parked cars on the street help protect people on sidewalks.

Austin Represents
We were proud to see that one of the conference field trips featured Austin innovators. While exploring the streets and sidewalks right outside the conference hotel, participants digitally documented the experience of walking and bicycling (actually, tricycling) in the area. This activity was run by Heyden Black Walker, MSCRP, an urban planner with Black + Vernooy; John Simmerman, MS, a nationally recognized health promotion professional, urbanist and filmmaker; Katie Deolloz, creator of ATX Walks; W. Preston Tyree, BChE, MBA, author of The State of the Art: Bicycle Education in America and Ani Colt, co-founder (with Tyree) of Trike Neighborhoods.

Building Partnerships to Implement the Age-friendly Austin Action Plan
How do we engage under-represented community members as we implement our age-friendly initiatives? A few suggestions from speakers and panelists:

  • Put together a Steering Committee that reflects our community
  • “Aging is not the problem; a city that is not planning for an aging population is the problem.” We need to embed age-friendly ideas within the city’s planning processes, divisions and departments
  • Hold more town halls (regular and on social media) on a regular basis
  • Encourage churches, which often have programs supporting older adults, to solicit input from their congregants
  • Survey residents about what they need and want, then listen to their answers
  • Reach out to businesses, City government and nonprofits to ask for their input and ideas
  • Stress the importance of multigenerational input. The changes that we make for today’s older adults will benefit younger generations, too.

Additional Resources
2017 AARP Livable Communities National Conference (includes video highlights)

Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities

Hundred Million Healthier Lives campaign

Fort Worth’s “Town Halls for All”