Does a Mableton experiment hold the answer for aging Atlantans?

The suburb’s effort to become a Lifelong community

Copyright of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.

The corner of Clay and Floyd roads in south Cobb County looks like any suburban intersection: mega RaceTrac gas station, Food Depot grocery store with a gargantuan parking lot, cars whizzing by to beat the traffic light. Yet hard as it is to envision, this is the epicenter of a redo so revolutionary it has already won awards and brought national attention to humble Mableton.

Here’s the hoped-for future: retrofitting a suburban community so it becomes a new incarnation of an old-fashioned, walkable urban neighborhood. The new Mableton will have a town green, shops, and townhomes along a tree-lined boulevard. Parking lots will be transformed into parks. Mableton will become a “lifelong community,” where older residents can walk to a coffee shop, pharmacy, and farmers market while young families can walk to the elementary school, playgrounds, and puppet shows.

“We’re talking about a vision—taking an area and transitioning it to what you see on paper,” says Dave McDaniel, sixty-three, past treasurer of the Mableton Improvement Coalition. Right now he’s standing in a pile of mud near the new, wide multiuse path being built along Floyd Road, which will also have a median with trees and plantings.

McDaniel has lived a couple of miles from this intersection for the past thirty-three years, and he acknowledges the remake of sprawl will be incremental. Nearby, there are tiny clapboard homes in disrepair, aging warehouses, and even a small junkyard. “It’s going to take time and money to make it the livable place we want it to be,” he says.

And what Mableton aims to be is the answer to the graying of suburbia. By 2030, one in five Atlantans will be sixty or older. The outer suburbs are aging most rapidly; the sixty-five-plus population more than doubled from 2000 to 2010 in Forsyth, Paulding, and Cherokee counties. Cumming offers a glimpse of the future: 22 percent of its residents are in that older generation.

The Lifelong Mableton remake is truly “leading edge,” says Philip Stafford, a cultural anthropologist who is author of Elderburbia and director of the Center on Aging and Community at Indiana University’s Indiana Institute on Disability and Community. Since the 1970s, the institute has pioneered efforts to move people with severe physical and mental disabilities out of institutions and into the community.

“It’s more than just an elder-friendly community,” he says of the Mableton effort. “They’re deliberately trying to think across the lifespan.”

Instead of typical suburban zoning with commercial strips and secluded cul-de-sacs, the Lifelong plan mixes offices, shops, and apartments. In other words, a mini city center will be carved into suburban sprawl.

The Lifelong Communities initiative began in 2009 when the Atlanta Regional Commission received a federal grant and hired the “new urbanist” architecture firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company to draft plans that would help suburbanites age without having to leave their homes. The company held charettes—brainstorming meetings—and invited experts, residents, and community leaders to sound off.

As an important first step, Cobb County approved the new, special zoning, which sets the transformation in (slow) motion. The county also plans to construct a road to re-create a townlike grid, and to build the first town square in front of Mableton Elementary School. The work will take a few years, says Dana Johnson, planning division manager for Cobb County’s Community Development Agency. “This is a long-range vision.”

In many ways, Mableton is an ideal prototype. The community (it’s not an incorporated city) mirrors the metro area in its racial diversity and middle-class lifestyle. The average household in Mableton has 2.67 people, an income of $56,682, and a commute of thirty-one minutes, according to the U.S. Census. About 8 percent of its residents are sixty-five or older; more than one in four are children.

Mableton also is the birthplace of former governor Roy Barnes, whose influence gives it an advantage would-be Lifelong Communities lack. Barnes owns 23.5 acres in the planned town center and donates space for the current community garden.

Barnes says that when the real estate market recovers, he will partner with a developer to build according to the master plan. The land that was once his family homestead and dairy farm will become part of a new main street.

“It’s returning to what we knew worked in years past,” says Barnes, who now lives seven-tenths of a mile from the Marietta Square, which has retained that old-town feel. “We had interrupted that by this idea that we would have large tract housing and large malls. It was fine for the time, but what we realize now is that people don’t want that anymore.”

Barnes walks to his office, to restaurants, and even to church on Sunday. “I’m a perfect example of the type of person who wants this type of living,” he says.

Mableton was one of five metro Atlanta communities that received the Lifelong Communities makeover, but it has made the most progress. Last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Building Healthy Communities for Active Aging program gave Mableton a “commitment award,” and the Georgia Planning Association named it an “outstanding initiative.” The Mableton Lifelong Community effort also was featured in a PBS documentary, the Wall Street Journal, and a book on urban design in aging America.

Other communities exploring the Lifelong concept include Morrow in Clayton County, Avondale Estates, the Toco Hills neighborhood in DeKalb, Conyers in Rockdale County, and Fayetteville.

Growing old in a cul-de-sac is isolating—as is living in a seniors-only development. Lifelong Communities are the antidote to segregation by age, says Laura Keyes, program manager of the community development unit in the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Aging and Health Resources Division. Two out of three older Atlantans want to stay in their homes as long as possible, an ARC survey found. But as older people have difficulty driving, navigating daily life in the suburbs is unmanageable.

In the Mableton plan, senior-friendly apartments and a small assisted-living facility would be across the street from family-friendly townhomes. Keyes even envisions grandparents walking grandkids to school.

“Our focus isn’t to set up retirement communities. It is to create communities for all ages and abilities,” Keyes says. “What we do for older adults is going to have a positive impact for the five-year-old trying to get to school and the mom pushing a stroller.”

This article originally appeared in our May 2013 issue.