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BUILDING A MORE SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR SENIOR LIVING, Part 5: Developing a Strategy of Practical Actions

As stated, small communities, larger municipalities and their suburbs, and the regions in which they are located can become more sustainable; and in doing so foster sustainable senior living. The trends and the realizations derived from a closer look at them provide the means to convince NIMBYs that sustainable senior living would be a good thing in their backyard and show elected leaders that supporting sustainable senior living is not political suicide. Sustainable senior living is a cost-effective strategy to achieving a more sustainable future for all age groups. It is a strategy that involves communities in maximizing their use of local human resources through partnerships, realizing saving through more efficient use of natural resources, and reinvesting those savings in the future built environment and its infrastructure.


Let’s assume that in a few years municipal and state governments support infill and vertical development. Growth has come to mean densification, not sprawl. Most residents choose to walk or ride bicycles. Hybrid vehicles are used by maintenance and service providers and those few still needing to drive. Let’s assume that residents, business owners, and community leaders practice waste recovery and reuse, boosted energy productivity, and decision making based on short-term payback time lines and reinvestment practices. Financial stability is supported through local production by local businesses, and money once lost to foreign corporations stays in the community.

Let’s assume the overlapping nature of the five trends is now realized in the form of ‘‘multiple benefits from single expenditures’’ (Hawkins et al., 1999, p. 287). As communities become denser and more pedestrian friendly they realize the multiple benefits of reduced road and utility expenditures, positive tax revenue to service cost ratios, smaller ecological or carbon footprints, and reduced green-house gas emissions. Also, part of the emerging ‘‘web of mutually supportive solutions’’ (Hawkins et al., 1999, p. 288) are less storm water runoff, shorter travel distances, less pollution, and a healthier population. Social capital is valued in the clustering of homes, jobs, recreation, shopping education, and health services. Heightened social connectivity across age groups is seen as healthier citizens actively involved in community renewal (Putnam, 2000; Kemmis, 1995), reduced absenteeism, and increased productivity. The savings from these changes are reinvested in personal efforts to age in place, businesses’ adoption of greener practices, and high-efficiency municipal infrastructure. Once siloed professions that, to a great extent, worked independent of each other, are now part of that web of mutually-supportive solutions in which academics willingly accept neighborhood and other public interest groups’ help in directing research agendas (Whyte, 1991).

Realization of these assumptions is only a fraction of the transformed 21st century community. The question remains, What practical activities can we take that will get us there? One important key is the built environment. Working to appropriately design, redesign, and retrofit the built environment will reverse the pressures associated with energy, health, water, climate, and aging issues. But, what does working to appropriately design sustainable senior living look like? Like governing a community, the issues are so complex that no one profession, viewpoint, or value system can do it alone. However, in the same way the built environment is common to the trends it is also a common focus of the professions involved in researching, explaining, and working to solve for each trend. As a result, the built environment is the center around which a strategy of collaboration revolves and teams of specialists and community groups are brought together.

Building a strategy that gives us the means to move toward a more sustainable state supportive of senior living starts with the trends’ overlapping nature. The fact that the trends overlap provides the means by which we can bring together diverse professional, civic, and academic partnerships. It isn’t that professions and organizations linked with each of those categories have not been working for a better future. They have. The issue is that they have not been working collaboratively to the extent that they now must. By working more collaboratively, teams of diverse professionals can help communities realize multiple returns on the time they invest in making their community less automobile-dependent, more walkable, and denser (McKinsey Global Institute, 2010). Environments that foster walking over driving contribute to a healthier population, reduce carbon emissions, build social capital, and save energy and water. In turn, when we consider the multiple benefits to be derived from changes to the built environment we also begin to realize the multiplicity of professions involved. Joining diverse professions enables us to reduce the lag-time (Riley & Riley, 1994) associated with siloed professions and ivory-towered academic programs and builds broader working relationships across professions, universities, and community groups.


An ongoing six-year community-university partnership provides a list of activities that have successfully moved Spokane, Washington’s Hillyard neighborhood forward faster than they ever expected. Much of the success, as identified by Spokane mayor Verner and Hillyard volunteers, rests with the joining of retirees and university students. Through more than 70 projects brought to the design stage, the retirees and students have organized diverse groups of local professionals and laypeople into collaborative teams recognized as service-learning partnerships. The academic partners include Washington State University Spokane’s Interdisciplinary Design Institute (WSU-IDI) architecture, land-scape architecture, and interior design students and Eastern Washington University (EWU-CBPA) College of Business and Pubic Administration business students and their respective faculty members. Nursing, public health, and engineering students have also been included on an as-need basis. Student teams partner with neighborhood residents, city hall and regional public health staff, members of nonprofit organizations and, recently, Washington State Department of Transportation engineers. The neighborhood’s primary goals are economic and social revitalization. At the same time, neighborhood and involved faculty members recognize that a vibrant economic and social future will only succeed if planned changes are sensitive to the growing influences of the five global trends. For these reasons, it is safe to say that the actions outlined below not only contribute to job creation and training, life-long learning, improved health and social services but also those features of walkability, energy and water conservation, and carbon reduction that support sustainable senior living.

Included Activities

Building Service-Learning or Project Based Learning Partnerships

Some colleges and university have designated community-building or service-learning staff that promote and administer students’ involvement with the community. In our case, a series of public talks, by this author and three-time retiree Mr. J. R. Sloan, on why neighborhoods should involve retirees in the building of stronger communities, opened the way to ad hoc service-learning partnership agreements between Hillyard and Washington State University Interdisciplinary Design Institute (IDI) faculty and Eastern Washington University (EWU) College of Business and Pubic Administration faculty.

Partnerships and Project Identification

Almost all of the 100+ projects completed thus far (2 more are currently ongoing) were identified by Hillyard residents. Faculty members, with an eye to meeting learning objectives, made modifications to the projects with the neighborhood’s approval. Late summer of 2006, over dinner at a local restaurant and armed with maps and markers, the residents decided the students would first explore what the entire neighborhood could look like in 2030. The residents then used the public’s responses to those master plans to identify the next series of more detailed individual projects. The dinner group identified four districts: historic downtown, residential, industrial, and future expansion. During the public presentation of the four master-planned districts, participants were asked to write down and be prepared to speak to specific, site-level projects they would like to see explored in greater detailed. The neighborhood residents were also told that if their projects were selected they would have to agree to work directly with the student(s) throughout the course of the project. Twenty-seven projects were identified, 17 were carried out.

Project Partners

Neighborhood and design student teams are comprised of a mix of retirees, working residents, and business owners. More meetings occur in the neighborhood than on campus. On occasion, the neighborhood WSU-IDI teams work with EWU-CBPA business students who provide market surveys and economic development and business plans. On other occasions, EWU business students carried out quality food source and walkability surveys with local public health staff. Other frequent contributors to the teams’ work include City Planning, City Parks Department, City Business & Development Services Department, Spokane Regional Health District, Area Agency on Aging, and Washington State Department of Transportation.

Process Parameters

Three criteria guide the partnerships. First, design teams are made up of students and neighborhood members, with the students being more responsible to their neighborhood counterparts than their professor. Neighborhood representatives and students share contact information and organize their own meetings. Students are responsible to review their progress with their instructor at least once a week. Second, neighborhood-student teams are required to organize a focus group meeting within the neighborhood, gather input specific to their project from a wider audience, and—where feasible—bring their wishes into the project. Third, create visuals, visuals, and more visuals. We have found that identifying residents’ wished-for changes and the movement of group discussions to a level of mutual understanding and agreement occurs more quickly through the use of visuals than with words alone. Simple models, freehand sketches, and computer-generated graphics quickly allow people to realize critical qualities that words often take longer to bring to clarity: Visuals help avoid reactions such as ‘‘Oh, I didn’t realize you meant it faced that way.’’ Or, ‘‘I thought you meant this was over there.’’ Using visuals saves hours of debate.

As the realization of needed changes grows, government and non-government organizations will look for mechanisms that can more quickly move them from problem identification to solution implementation. For at least three reasons, community-university service-learning partnerships provide such a mechanism. First, they bring added resources to a situation. While no one has measured the ability of service-learning projects to accelerate change (Scarfo, 2009), the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning provides numerous examples of service-learning partnerships responsible for the initiation and perpetuation of changes within agencies, neighborhoods, and larger communities (Hardin, 2006; Miron & Moely, 2006; Morton, 1995). Second, service-learning activities contribute to civic growth and engaged citizenship among both the students and their community partners (Miron & Moely, 2006; Cone & Harris, 1996), and they do so in ways that build a more inclusive, community-wide social network (Whyte, 1991; Jorge, 2003; Jacoby, 2003; Enos & Morton, 2003; Sandy & Holland, 2006). Third, service-learning partnerships can build broader university-community collaborations that bring the benefits of participatory action research into play (Sorensen, Reardon, & Klump, 2003; Rhodes & Howard, 1998; Whyte, 1991) so that practical community needs lead to research agendas the outcomes of which contribute to city-level policy and protocol changes.

Another contributor to accelerating change has been the Hillyard residents’ strategic use of student work. The public display of projects garnered valuable input from a broader portion of the community and opened doors with city hall staff long thought closed. Samples of teams’ work and their drawings of what the neighborhood could look like in 2030 were displayed in a local shop. The display included Post-its and pencils so customers could provide feedback. Other works were displayed in city hall, this allowed elected officials and city staff, on a daily basis, to see what Hillyard could become. These and other similar actions have been specifically noted as the reasons why three surrounding neighborhoods asked to join the partnership and Washington State Department of Transportation staff requested more student involvement.

In addition to accelerating change, benefits are also derived from the neighborhood-student teams’ service-learning partnership. The students mature as individuals, future civic-minded professionals, and informed citizens. Their work at merging the realities of neighborhood life with the growing trends also prepares them for coming shifts in their respective profession’s focus.