People Power

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2009

›› A couple of months ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article called “Making Suburbia More Livable.” The piece was all about how to make the ’burbs more convenient and manageable—a “lifelong community”—for the older crowd, meaning anyone over 60. It’s a pressing issue, since half the U.S. population lives in those leafy, green suburbs right now, according to the story, and while they “may have been a good place to grow up…they’re a tough place to grow old.”

So what’s going to happen to the acres of lawn, backyard pools and all that cloistered privacy we coveted when we had a houseful of kids, better eyesight and unflagging energy—especially here in Southwest Florida where we have one of the oldest populations in the country? Two stories in this issue (“Gray Matters,” page 16, and “Population Shifts,” page 22) explore some of the changes we face.

From a sociological point of view, the issues are fascinating: How do we design communities so the elderly don’t have to get behind the wheel of a car? How do we create neighborhoods where young people can listen to music, families can take their kids to the park, and the elderly can have access to their doctors—where everything’s affordable and beautiful, and all these generations live together harmoniously?

Sounds pretty daunting, but I was heartened when we brought in Robert H. McNulty, the president of Washington, D.C.,-based Partners for Livable Communities, in September as a speaker at the Smart Growth/Dumb Growth series that we co-present with USF’s Institute for Public Policy and Leadership.

McNulty says other communities have succeeded in this task and have revitalized their cities in the process. We can start small. When David Merrill asked McNulty how to create a sense of place in his community, Osprey, which feels like an airport runway on U.S. 41 between Sarasota Square Mall and Venice, McNulty said it’s possible to begin just by holding a farmer’s market at a local fire station or library, adding a coffee shop and offering flu shots. We must have gathering places, he says, and those places and our downtowns should be like “second living rooms.” No desirable community can have strong neighborhoods without a lively downtown, and no downtown can work without wonderful neighborhoods where people feel pride.

The stories in this issue will give you a deeper sense of how slower population growth and an older citizenry will force us to reconsider the old suburban model. Smart businesspeople will also see opportunity in the new era.

Mark your calendar for our next Smart Growth/Dumb Growth forum, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 4-5:30 p.m. at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Selby Auditorium, when we’ll continue the conversation about how we should grow as a region. The topic: How to revitalize our economy using our arts and culture.

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