I’m still discovering that planning is everywhere. For example, one place I never thought it would show up was in a publication by the AARP. Now that I’ve looked into it, it makes sense. But I think that I (and unfortunately, many other decision-makers and folks in planning) didn’t “get” how aging impacts what our cities and places should be.

The piece that inspired this line of thinking is an article about how land use could be made better for women, families, caregivers, and older adults. AARP interviewed Mildred Warner, a professor of planning at Cornell, and she shared some fascinating insights into how planning and land use has failed us.

Historically, segregated land uses (meaning, for example, that an area can be residential and nothing else) have prevented childcare services from being located near homes and prevented the development of mixed-use centers where you can live, work, and play. This reflects a bias toward planning for commerce and not the informal economy of parenting and caregiving. It also reflects a lack of interest in explicitly planning for children or the elderly. For example, while we all know that parks are great for communities, have we really thought about what constitutes an amazing environment for a child or an elderly person? That environment probably includes a park, yes – but if it’s a park you have to drive to or that doesn’t have good paths or connections to surrounding services or schools, how well is it really serving us?

I think the new movement toward walkability and livable communities puts us in the right direction. There’s money and economic development in deploying those strategies in your community, sure – but there are also the benefits of an increased quality of life for those who are growing up or aging in place. We all were children, and some of us will be lucky enough to grow old, and our communities should be places where we can live and be taken care of regardless of our economic contributions, mobility, income level, etc.

To put it bluntly, land use regulations need to reflect a variety of living situations (e.g., cohabitation by people other than nuclear families with breadwinners), allow for zoning that enables walkability and a mix of uses, and requires a land use-transportation connection for accessibility and mobility.

I also loved Mildred’s parting thoughts on family definitions. She asks:

“Who are we to decide what constitutes a household or a family? Is it really appropriate for planning and zoning to restrict how people live together?”

I couldn’t agree more.

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