Alan DeLaTorre, a researcher and urban planner from Portland State University, appeared at the Indiana Landmarks Center on March 8, 2013 through the Communities for a Lifetime initiative. He discussed what cities including Indianapolis must do to become more livable for aging populations and how those changes and amenities improve the city’s “livability” for people of all ages and abilities.
In advance of his visit, Central Indiana Community Foundation staff spoke with DeLaTorre about his work with the World Health Organization (WHO) Age-Friendly Cities project and its implementation in Portland, Oregon. DeLaTorre’s work also includes teaching urban planning to students of Portland State University and coordinating the Global Aging and Health: Enhancing Communities in Nicaragua program. The Central Indiana Senior Fund, a fund of CICF, provides grants to senior-serving projects and also seeks to identify and address the unique needs of, and opportunities for seniors.
CICF: You have a background in both aging and urban design. How would you describe your work?
Alan DeLaTorre (AD): My focus is really on urban, as well as suburban, aging, and I try to focus on what I know about, because aging is a very broad topic. I describe myself as an urban gerontologist, and my research focuses on the intersections of aging, buildings, housing and how cities make all of those work together.
CICF: How did you choose to focus on "urban gerontology" in your career?
AD: I'd say that it started when I was a freshman in college. There were two important events: First, my sister had a car accident and had a traumatic brain injury. It made me and my family reconsider what we know about aging and disability. Second, my Sociology 101 professor, Dr. Rosalie Gilford (a gerontologist), challenged me after seeing me with my skateboard repeatedly in class. She said that I should think about what I was skating on and why it was built. I had never really though much about my "urban playground" - benches, rails, stairs, ledges - and the fact that they act as a prosthetic to people using the surrounding urbanscape. I guess that another important aspect was when I choose Portland State University to do my doctoral work. I was able to combine Urban Planning and Gerontology and fields areas in a PhD program in Urban Studies. I had several professors at PSU who were experts on planning for an aging society, which helped in grooming me to learn about the topic.
"Working with the WHO project has become...an effort to prepare for something that is really inevitable for every city across the world: tremendous growth in our older populations."
CICF: What have you learned as part of the WHO Age-Friendly Cities project and its implementation in Portland?
AD: Working with the WHO project has become an incredible opportunity for me to take a research project and see it grow into a more popular approach, an effort to prepare for something that is really inevitable for every city across the world: tremendous growth in our older populations. A lot of the work that we’ve been doing the last few years has been more on the policy development side, on taking the perspectives of citizens and transforming them into policy. Portland, like all the larger cities in Oregon, is mandated by the state to have a comprehensive plan that looks at the “built environment” – outdoor spaces, transportation, buildings – and [Portland] got the process started early, with a lot of public input about the day-to-day experiences of individuals. Now, we’re taking that input, translating it into policy, taking the “What do we want?” questions and playing them out into actions.
I’ve also learned that this topic, the “age-friendly city,” is gaining more recognition. It used to be that, when I was at a conference or a meeting, when I would share my title, people would immediately ask me, “What is an age-friendly city, what is that about?” But, today, there’s not so much need for filling in that back-story. People are more interested in the details – what are the models, what are the outcomes we’ve seen. In just five years, we’ve seen a lot of progress on what an age-friendly city is, in who knows about that, and that’s going to make these efforts more successful.
CICF: What does an age-friendly community look like?
AD: Communities are very unique, so it’s difficult to prescribe an age-friendly solution without knowing the inner workings of the city. But there are core components that are essential. Affordable and accessible housing – there is a growing need, a need that is unmet. That housing piece is where I’m most focused. But there are related community aspects. There’s access to transportation, so a transit service and good roads with appropriate signage. And health issues are very important – age-related health, the challenges of non-normal aging, and how we fit those together with day-to-day living. Then, there’s the built environment, how do we make sure that services are nearby. Education is also important, for both citizens and lawmakers, education about how we’re creating programs that meet the needs of our society. And we need to think about how all these work together – how are health and housing connected? WHO also has a checklist of age-friendly domains, which can be very useful [insert link].
CICF: How can funders – both public and private – support age-friendly policies?
"One of our only natural resources that will be increasing is the aging population. These older adults can help us address some big community issues like homelessness or human development."
AD: I would urge funders to think about aging adults as a resource. We face dwindling natural resources – clean water, fossil fuels, land – access is decreasing all over the world. But one of our only natural resources that will be increasing is the aging population. How can we get the most out of that opportunity without de-personalizing older adults? These older adults can help us address some big community issues like homelessness or human development. If we can get funders to see that unlocking older adults’ potential and pairing that with our challenges, we can really build on that opportunity.
The other big component is that we need to approach these issues in holistic ways, and there’s not a lot of money for that. Most government units are “siloed”, so it’s housing or transportation or planning. We need those groups to work together and to fund projects that address all those domains.
CICF: So, who are you hoping will come to the March 8 event at Indiana Landmarks Center?
AD: The ideal potential audience member is anyone interested in urban or suburban aging issues, or even just aging in general. This will be a good opportunity to explore one model of working with those issues, one that is being replicated in several cities – New York, Philadelphia – and that Portland is finding some initial success with.
About Communities for a Lifetime:
The Communities for a Lifetime initiative reinforces the idea that the principles that make a community one to grow old in are the same principles that make communities livable for people of all ages and abilities; these principles include access to affordable and safe housing options for all stages of life, access to high quality transportation options, the ability to feel safe and secure in one’s environment and proximity to basic services, shopping, health care, recreational and cultural activities.
Through a grant from the national Grantmakers in Aging (GIA), the Public Policy Institute (PPI) is partnering with the Indiana Grantmakers Alliance and the IU Center on Aging and Community to advance Communities for a Lifetime work in three Indiana communities: the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood of Indianapolis, Huntington, and Bloomington. This project is part of a broader initiative, funded by the Pfizer Foundation, to advance this work in Indiana and four additional sites throughout the nation.