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BUILDING A MORE SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR SENIOR LIVING, Part 4: What Global Trends Help Us Realize

Each trend will, in some way, influence all our lives, homes, and neighborhoods. Considered individually, the five trends quickly paint sustainable senior living as unattainable. But, dealing with each trend individually is misleading. Considering them collectively, as converging and overlapping trends, allows us to look beyond the dizzying number of specific influences on people, society, energy, and resources and realize commonalities that can be used to outline positive plans of action. Initiation of a movement toward sustainable senior living calls for an integrated understanding that goes beyond the trends themselves. The fact that the trends are overlapping, that we will experience them together over much the same time period, has certain benefits; a positive plan of action with the potential to move communities closer to sustainable senior living starts with five realizations.

Realization #1

The trends did not just appear. Communities had time to prepare. Almost simultaneous with the advent of coal burning in the 1800s and the arrival of the industrial revolution, scientists questioned the possibility of a warming of the earth’s climate (Weart, 2003). A 1939 issue of Time, introduced the general public to the idea of climate change followed in the 1950s with more popular and scientific articles (Weart, 2003). In 1956 M. King Hubbert predicted when national and global oil reserves would peak in their production and then begin to diminish (Roberts, 2003; Simmons, 2005; Deffeyes, 2005). The history of the United States is replete with accounts of private individuals, cities, states, and federal agencies devising ways to solidify water rights due to scarce supplies (Reisner, 1993; Shuman, 2000). Discussions about the impact of the Baby Boomers coming to retirement are found in 1948 issues of Time and Newsweek. And finally, studies focusing on American’s weight-related health problems date back to the 1960s (Popkin, Siega-Riz, & Haines, 1996; Eckel, 1997).

We had from 25 to over 100 years to prepare for what now feels like a sudden need to adapt. Nonetheless, and for reasons better explained by others (Murphy, 2008; Friedman, 2008) we are at a point when the need for major changes is blatantly evident. As government and non-governmental organizations admit to needed changes, a closing window of opportunity, and the inertia of the status quo, they will look for ways that more quickly move them from problem admission, through solution formulation, to product implementation.

Realization #2

Each trend’s influence is global, national, regional, local, and personal. No one place or individual will escape the need to modify their habits and their environments. While the numbers and timing vary, all countries are experiencing energy and water resource issues, a growing population plagued by obesity and its comorbidities of hypertension and heart disease, shifting climates, and aging. The fact that certain locales are healthier and more sustainable provides those lagging behind with excellent examples of policies, strategies, and practices to adopt.

With the economic and political collapse of the USSR at the end of the last century, Cubans overnight experienced an advanced stage of peak oil. Cuba’s revamping of agriculture, education, and transportation provides one of the more positive peak oil messages (Morgan et al., 2006). Recently awarded the Globe Sustainable City Award and as seen in the DVD A Convenient Truth (Del Bello, 2007), Curitiba, Brazil provides examples of policies, land use plans, and sustainable living practices that likely violate many U. S. states, cities, and towns’ political procedures and zoning ordinances. Those ‘‘violations’’ exemplify the kinds of thinking and modifications to be called for by communities wishing to move in a more senior-friendly and sustainable direction. And as documented in the DVD Garbage Warrior (Hodge & Wexler, 2008), Taos, New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds’ efforts to test sustainable house and subdivision designs got him stripped of his architect’s license. His passion, how-ever, to design and build sustainable homes in anticipation of the energy downturn, and three years of effort, culminated in the New Mexico legislature approving the experimental Greater World Community Subdivision.

Realization #3

Convergence of the trends is a first-time-ever event. Business-as-usual approaches to governance, land planning, food production and distribution, people’s diets and daily habits, and more will need to be replaced by very different practices driven by new value structures. Again, there are guideposts to be found and studied. Curitiba, Brazil (Del Bello, 2007) and Bogata, Columbia’s (Dalsgaard, 2009) land planning and social equity successes rest more on the shoulders of its leaders and citizens’ wishes for a better quality of life than in their pocket books. Germany’s Green Dot Recycling program’s adoption by over 20 European Union countries speaks to waste reduction and resource reuse. Toyota’s Lean Production system echoes McKinsey and Company’s do-more-with-less approach to not only capturing wasted energy but also reinvesting the savings in the development of future infrastructures (McKinsey, 2007).

Realization #4

The trends are overlapping. While that may seem to be a not so good thing, the point at which the trends overlap provides a common denominator, the built environment. This realization introduces a number of ways to orchestrate multi-win scenarios. In its compactness, a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, multigenerational built environment that fosters sustainable senior-friendly living also fosters reduced energy consumption, lower greenhouse gas emissions, opportunities to retain water locally, and a generally healthier population. Each trend’s interplay with the built environment opens the way to build broadened and more diverse collaborative problem solving teams. When we recognize the diverse professions associated with each trend, and how those professions explicitly and implicitly each argue for modifications to the built environment, we can then use the built environment to bring together equally diverse collaborative teams.

Realization #5

Transparency is being completely honest with oneself and others. This admission may seem outside the realm of this article’s focus; it is not outside the realm of this article’s intent: moving communities closer to a sustainable state. This will not happen if various interest groups are allowed to maintain the status quo. Old guard city hall managers and their staff have practiced particular regulatory actions and made certain decisions for decades and many of them are not about to change. Peak oil advocates note that oil companies, while appearing to move toward alternative forms of energy, are working to extend the life (read, profitability) of existing petroleum-based infrastructures while the coal industry promotes the oxymoron, clean coal (Friedman, 2008). A sign of changing times, however, is found with the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative <http://www.osli.ca/ > and the more recent collaborations in Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) http://www.cosia.ca/.

Debates among many city and county officials as to which population projections to use to plan for growth rarely define growth. A closer look at the rhetoric indicates that growth is equated with sprawl. Debates in 2006 in Spokane County, Washington surrounding the expansion of the county’s urban growth boundary are a good example. While never explicitly defined, a close reading makes it clear that no matter which population projection—low medium, or high— would be used, the result would be an expansion of the urban growth boundary. Other than the one call for infill development by Spokane City Council Member Al French (Brunt, 2006), urban growth, for the most part, continues as low-density, unsustainable sprawl.

On a related front, the hype surrounding hybrid automobiles draws attention away from one critically related issue. While appearing to lower our oil dependency, the promotion of more fuel-efficient engines and hybrid cars perpetuates the automobile-dependent life styles to which we’ve become accustomed. Low-density, sprawling, automobile-dependent communities cost cities dearly. For every dollar of revenue collected it costs between $1.58 and $5.00 to service suburban and exurban homes, while it costs between $0.28 and $0.58 cents to service higher density mixed use neighborhoods and down-towns (Best, 2005; American Farmland Trust [AFT], 2007). The annual costs of car ownership range between $8,000 and $9,500 U.S. and up to $13,000 in Canada (Brent, 2007) while higher density, walk-able suburbs that enable a family to replace one car with bus, bicycle, or walking saves money (for the family and the municipality), reduces carbon emissions, and supports one’s health (Heidorn, 2006).