Placemaking and Aging Harley Riders

As a baby boomer with parents in their late 70s, their living situation is a growing concern for me. My folks are still ok driving, they maintain the yard and house, and they are physically active. But we all see a day coming when they will not be as self-sufficient and active as they are now.

As their likely caregiver, their location dictates where I spend a lot of my vacation time in the next few years. Happily for me, that’s Skidaway Island in Savannah, Georgia (pictured above. Thanks Mom and Dad!). The island has 10,000 residents, about as many as Cadillac. There is a good grocery store, library, health club, a restaurant, a couple of churches, and a pharmacy accessible by road as well as a walking/golf cart path, but doctors and other stores are off the island and require a car – there’s no public transportation. I’d like to see them stay in their house if that’s what they want, but clearly they will need some help as they become less mobile.

They may also find that their social opportunities diminish with their transportation options. Mom’s book club and bridge group are on the island but not walkable. Dad’s social circle is his golf group, which plays off the island. A criticism of the “aging in place” model – put some grab bars in the bathtub and you’re good to stay – is that, sure, you can stay in your house, but unless you can still drive, you can’t actually leave your house. In some residential situations, people who age in place may become more isolated than if they were in an institution. New York Times columnist Jane Brody wrote this column a few weeks ago about aging in place - from the perspective of a woman in her 70s. It's worth a read if you're interested in the topic. 

The World Health Organization has identified eight factors that contribute to age-friendly communities: community services and health care; transportation; housing; social participation opportunities; outdoor spaces; respect and social inclusion; opportunities for civic participation and work; and communications and information. The AARP has livability fact sheets for community planners that cite bicycling as a transportation option, dense, walkable neighborhoods, trees, and traffic calm as assets to make “great places for people of all ages.” Hmmmm, sound familiar? These have a lot in common with that list of placemaking characteristics I included in a previous post (see below). If we’re going to do placemaking, it should be for EVERYONE. Not just hipsters, not just artists, not just bloggers.

12 Steps to a Great Public Space

  1. Protection from traffic
  2. Protection from crime
  3. Protection from the elements
  4. A place to walk
  5. A place to stop and stand
  6. A place to sit
  7. Things to see
  8. Opportunities for conversations
  9. Opportunities for play
  10. Human-scale
  11. Opportunities to enjoy good weather
  12. Aesthetic quality

To which I would add:
Opportunities for active engagement and participation
Opportunities for quiet and reflection
Places to get food and drinks

Ideally, elders wouldn’t be segregated unless they wanted to be. A well-designed and executed community wouldn’t need special housing or amenities for the elderly and/or disabled, because health care, transportation, opportunities for civic participation, and outdoor spaces would be there for the hipsters, artists and bloggers already. Communities that are walkable with nearby services allow people who don’t drive to maintain all or most of their activities as they age. Walking creates all kinds of benefits – health, social, local economy, and environmental. Amenities for pedestrians usually translate pretty well to people on wheels – wheelchairs and walkers as well as bicycles and strollers.

This ad is from 1962. Lawn bowling! Archery! Shuffleboard!

This ad is from 1962. Lawn bowling! Archery! Shuffleboard!

There is a range of housing options targeted to aging people. And the concept of placemaking, no surprise, is influencing developments for older adults.

Age-restricted communities were hatched in the 1960s – gigantic suburban-type developments for people over 50 with onsite activities like golf and shuffleboard (Sun City, in the ad above, was one of the first). Contemporary aging boomers are more interested in bike trails than shuffleboard, and many of us will be working until we drop, so more age-limited communities are being built near cities where residents can keep working, ride the trails, and have diverse opportunities for social and civic engagement, rather than be isolated in the middle of the desert.

Elders who don’t necessarily want to be segregated, but may be by circumstance, are influencing nursing home development too. Nursing homes are not really “places” in the sense that we use the term, but this article describes an alternative to traditional / institutional nursing homes that incorporates placemaking concepts. The Green House model described is based on 10-person units where private rooms are built around a living room where residents can socialize. Each unit has a kitchen, and residents and staff work together to plan meals and activities. Green Houses’ smaller scale facilitates interaction between residents which include mixed populations (not all elderly people)… all placemaking concepts that make these less institutional facilities and more desirable living communities. Other nursing homes are facilitating social interaction between elders and youth, from preschoolers to college students.

And then there are theme retirement communities. Born to be wild? Harley riders, feel confident there is a place for you and your people even as you age. Some college campuses, including University of Michigan, have affiliated retirement communities with classes available to residents.

Born to be wild in a retirement community for Harley owners. Are those golf clubs on the back of Fonda's bike??

Born to be wild in a retirement community for Harley owners. Are those golf clubs on the back of Fonda's bike??

As with anything else, it’s all about having options. My parents like their suburban setting and I’m happy to visit them there. If we can figure out their transportation off the island, aging in place may be a great option for them. My grandmother relocated from Royal Oak to an age-restricted independent living apartment in Florida to be near her five cousins, transitioning over time to assisted living. My favorite neighbor (who’s 86) wants to move into town where he can walk to meet his buddies for breakfast and to the bank to flirt with the tellers.

The AARP says that one in three Americans is over 50 years old, making us demanding boomers a pretty substantial force for retirement housing choices and associated amenities that meet our needs and innermost desires. Oh the places we’ll go!

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!
― Dr. SeussOh, The Places You'll Go!

Bonus material!

The Times published several articles a while back describing issues that affect elders even in walkable, densely-developed cities: where can older people congregate within a walkable distance for them, socialize, but not be isolated with only other older people? Here is the first article in the series about police evicting loitering 80-year-olds from a Flushing, NY McDonald’s, followed by responses to it, then this editorial.  This last article describes McDonald’s as a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community – the places that people gather because of convenience and amenities.

And the last word on the subject of aging boomers…

As always, thanks for reading. I welcome your comments, ideas, suggestions, and innermost desires for your own retirement situation, either through the comments section here, by email at, or at


Of Poetry and Batman

"Poetry is everywhere; it just needs editing."  James Tate



I had several kind comments on last week’s quiet places post. Thank you so much! If you’d like to let me know your thoughts on other posts, here’s how:

-          You can email me at ordinaryvirtues(at) This keeps your comments private.

-          You can go to the web site,, click Blog on the top menu, go to the bottom of the blog post, and click on “comment” or “like”.  

-          You can see the post on my LinkedIn page and leave a comment there. But due to LinkedIn's limits on photos, some posts (like this one) don't go on LinkedIn.

And I promise to stop naming posts “Of…” or at least name fewer of them that way.

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Places With Potentially Unwelcome Intrusions

Arts and culture is one of the Sacred Pillars of Placemaking (along with walkability and coffee shops). The arts make our communities more desirable places to live or visit. From street art to opera, communities are trying to be more relevant by making the arts available (accessible is another discussion). Public art is a brick in this Sacred Pillar.

But as always there is the ancient debate over what constitutes art, with the contemporary twist of where it belongs. Over the summer, there was a debate in the New York Times over “whether public art is a welcome cultural amenity or an unwelcome intrusion in our parks and plazas.” And so today we ponder: does art belong in public places?

Public art can start a conversation (or a debate), make a boring spot more interesting and appealing, add color and character, contribute to a neighborhood’s identity, and enhance the experience of being in a park or other public space. It can complement a city’s identity – think ArtPrize, the big jellybean at Millennium Park in Chicago, Philadelphia’s LOVE sculpture.

Public art may be on private property, but visible to the public, or it may be at public spaces like parks, downtowns, or city offices. When art is on private property (at an office building, for example), people don’t seem to get too cranky. It’s when public funds and parks are used for art, or when someone is inconvenienced by it, or when it doesn’t meet their definition of “art” that their britches get in a bunch.

Years ago, there was a wonderful installation called The Gates in Central Park (photos below) by Christo and Jeanne Claude (first name only artists). A documentary was made about the project because it took from 1979 to 2005 to secure approval from the city for the temporary installation. And look how cool it is!

The Gates, Central Park, New York

The Gates, Central Park, New York

The Gates, Central Park, New York City

The Gates, Central Park, New York City

There is a distinction between temporary public art (like The Gates and some of the other examples in the Links section below) and permanent installations. Temporary art is here and gone. Because it’s not going to be around forever, it’s more of an event, a destination. It shouldn’t take 26 years to get a permit for an art project that’s only up for a few weeks.

I am particularly a fan of temporary public art, for many reasons. Why not change it up? Temporary works can be more daring (permanent public pieces are frequently so safe or even cloying they could be on the wall of a Holiday Inn). Community members see a wider variety of art. Permanent pieces become invisible and irrelevant after a time (or worse; lots of Confederate war memorials are coming down since the shootings in Charleston in June).  When a permanent work becomes dated, it’s a lot harder to make it go away than one you only have for a month or two. They are less maintenance.

Earlier I referenced the New York Times debate over “whether public art is a welcome cultural amenity or an unwelcome intrusion in our parks and plazas.” Obviously, my answer is welcome cultural amenity. If you read the Times piece, you’ll find a couple of commenters who are grumpy because their access to Central Park was limited during installation of The Gates, or one who thinks we should stick to memorials, fountains, and statutes (which are not public art because…??). This is one reason I like temporary works. You don’t like it, wait a month and it’ll be gone.

Some public art is crap, but I’d rather have crap that makes people look and think – make a judgment – than nothing at all. Museums are frequently built to intimidate people, or the art itself is intimidating, or people don’t think they’ll get it. The more art we can put into a comfortable setting, and the more fun it is, the less intimidating art is over time. Something like The Gates or Toledo’s red ball (below) is fun, interactive, and attracts people to a location. Not many people worry that they don’t “get” the big red ball. There will always be dissent. And because we live in a democracy, we all get to have an opinion, say it loud and proud, and either take action or move on.


Toledo hosted a giant red ball this past summer. The ball moved all around the city over a couple of weeks as part of a summer-long Playtime exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. People – especially adults – were invited to interact with playful and whimsical art.  Placemaking? Heck yeah. If you want to attract people to a place and make them smile, put a giant red ball there.

Red Ball, Toledo

Red Ball, Toledo

The installation below – the house with roots hanging from a crane – is a riff on the construction site. Intended to abate the eyesore that comes with construction, the roots suggest that the house was “violently yanked from the land” for the construction project.

Although I gave opera a shout out in the first paragraph, when I speak of public art in this email, I’m referring primarily to visual art. Music is certainly a form of public art / culture. One of my very favorite public arts initiatives was Random Acts of Culture, funded by the Knight Foundation, and other examples of flash mob arts. This one is my favorite. There are lots more on YouTube.

Taxi drivers in Mumbai are decorating their cabs with some fabulous art.

This two-minute video about an Indianapolis art center ties arts (including visual and music), neighborhood revitalization, economic development, and placemaking together.

Street art is getting more recognition as a legitimate art form. While insiders are giving it art world credibility, street art remains outside curators’ control.  The artists control the process from creation to exhibit. It’s not made for longevity – it is temporary by design. Viewers have to decide whether they like it without the blessing of an art bureaucracy. The art is seen in context. All of which I like. Here is an article about one community that embraces its street art, and has made it part of the city’s identity.

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