Atlanta Regional Commission and the Lifelong Communities Initiative

For providing the blueprint to create senior-friendly cities and neighborhoods across metro Atlanta
Groundbreakers 2016
Illustration by Leonard Beard

One steamy July morning, in the dining room of a spacious Inman Park home, a group of longtime neighborhood residents strategized over muffins and coffee about how to combat the unpleasant problem of root-busted sidewalks. And how to address the fact that Inman Park is home to nearly 4,300 people and a multitude of pricey luxury apartments but not a single residence classified as senior housing. And how to help their elderly neighbors learn to trust and use ride share services like Uber should driving become impossible.

The volunteers are all part of Lifelong Inman Park, a 16-person committee formed three years ago that now meets monthly. Their objective: to age-proof the neighborhood they love, making it as livable as possible for all residents, whether they traverse its cracked sidewalks in wheelchairs or strollers. In other words, to make it a “lifelong community.” Time is of the essence. Just 13 percent of Inman Parkers are older than 55 now, but committee leaders like Judy Clements know “there’s a big wave of people coming along.” She recently inventoried the neighborhood’s multifamily housing stock, examining properties to determine their suitability for senior housing.

Inman Park’s group—along with more than 20 others in neighborhoods and cities across the metro area—is part of the Lifelong Communities Initiative. It was launched by the Atlanta Regional Commission in 2007 with grant money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and later incorporated the expertise of “new urbanist” architects alongside input from regular citizens. The result was a framework for bucking suburban-style planning in favor of walkable, vibrant, mixed-used communities with citizenries of young and old.

According to the ARC, which functions as the regional planning and intergovernmental coordination agency for 10 counties around Atlanta, the number of metro residents age 65 and over swelled by 88.5 percent between 2000 and 2015, far outpacing the general populace.

The five original case study sites spanned the region: BeltLine/Boulevard, Conyers, Mableton, Fayetteville, and Toco Hills. “They’re all at various stages,” says Katie Perumbeti, the ARC’s Lifelong Communities Active Living Coordinator. “We keep them going.” The commission does that by hosting quarterly meetings, showing the groups how to find funding or make senior projects more economical, and relaying how other communities have navigated challenges or reached their goals.

One upstart that’s generated success quickly is Norcross, led by volunteer chairman Gary Brace, a recently retired actuary who calls the ARC a wellspring of good ideas. Each member of the Gwinnett city’s nine-person Lifelong Communities committee is in charge of singularly focused initiatives: installing walking and bike paths, designing a new park, planting more trees, and finding sustainable energy options, for example. They also encourage the development of smaller houses and townhomes—most within walking distance of Norcross’s picturesque downtown—that appeal to seniors. “I think [we are] on the cusp of blossoming into an extremely livable community,” says Brace.

Back in Inman Park, committee chairperson Cathie Berger stresses that the benefits of keeping seniors where they want to live are reciprocal. “Older people bring a balance into the community,” says Berger, who retired as manager of the ARC’s aging and health resources in 2013. “But where are people going to go, and what are cities going to do if all the [seniors] have to leave?”

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This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.