Placemaking Opportunity: AARP Community Challenge Grants

City Heights, San Diego, California / AARP

AARP knows that working to create more livable communities is not an optional endeavor – rather, it is central to our mission of supporting people to live their best lives at every age. Increasingly, communities are realizing that the flipside is true, too –ensuring that communities work for people of all ages is essential to their own community’s ability to thrive economically, socially, and culturally. And that realization is coming not a moment too soon: currently one in three people is over the age of 50, and by 2035, there will be more people over the age of 65 in the United States than under the age of 18. Any community that isn’t already asking, “Are we ready?” is going to be in for a surprise.

So, what does “ready” look like? Ultimately, it looks a place that offers diverse choices in housing, a range of viable transportation options, and well-designed parks and public spaces that invite interaction and activity. “Ready” means that communities are crafted to engage older adults in the community – as volunteers, as entrepreneurs, and as local leaders – and to harness their insights to drive better public investments and policy. The good news is these attributes don’t just deliver benefits to a single age group – they meet the needs of all.

AARP works closely with communities through our Livable Communities initiative to help examine their needs from an “age-friendly” lens in ways that can create a fruitful context for change. To date, more than 330 communities – and three states – have joined AARP’s Network of Age Friendly States and Communities. As a result of AARP’s efforts, more than 25 states reported local and/or state policy wins in 2018 that deliver better housing and transportation choices for older adults, and by extension, for all.

Inherent to our Livable Communities approach is the ability to help communities demonstrate the “proof of concept” for change – whether that change means a temporary roundabout, or a short-lived demonstration bike lane, or a model approach to adapting tiny homes to increase their accessibility. Since 2017, we have funded nearly 220 such models through our Community Challenge Grant program – which this year will give awards to communities for small-scale, quick-action demonstration projects.

If past grantees are any indicator, our 2019 awardees will help advance real impact in communities across the US – in cities, towns, and on tribal lands — through small, tactical investments in placemaking, housing, and transportation that spark broader conversation and community change.

Past Community Challenge projects include:

City Heights, San Diego, California – The eastern San Diego neighborhood of City Heights is an enclave for refugees from Somalia and other East African countries. The Challenge grant supported the construction of permanent seating and landscaping along University Avenue – home to shops, markets and mosques and a popular area for local residents (especially ones 50 or older) to gather (see image above).

Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Alaska – The Old Town Kenai campus is home to the Dena’ina Wellness Center as well as the Tyotkas Elders Center. Medicinal plants are an important tradition for the Dean’ina people, who have inhabited this region for more than 1000 years. The AARP Challenge grant funded the construction of six raised-bed garden boxes containing 12 native Alaskan medicinal plants which enabled tribal elders to grow the plants without stooping over. Walking tour maps and informational signs describe the medicinal properties of each plant and how they address specific ailments.

Medicinal planter bed at Dena’ina Wellness Center in Alaska / AARP

Chicago, Illinois – “People Spots” are temporary platforms that turn an existing parking spot into an outdoor space for public enjoyment. AARP grant funding enabled the City of Chicago to offer a People Spot prototype for installation on a rotating basis in areas of high economic hardship, or those designated “retail thrive zones” on Chicago’s south, southwest, and west sides.

People spot in Chicago / AARP

Jackson, Mississippi – Jackson’s first pedestrian-aimed project is a pilot for its Open Streets program to transform its auto-centric downtown streets into vibrant social spaces. The AARP grant funded the transformation of a block of Congress Street to including outdoor furniture, a parklet, bike infrastructure and programmed events such as PARK(ing) Day Friday on September 21, 2018.

Congress Street transformation, Jackson, Mississippi / Drew Dempsey, AARP
Congress Street transformation, Jackson, Mississippi / Drew Dempsey, AARP

Manning, Iowa – Manning’s brick-paved Main Street is a popular gathering spot for neighbors of all ages, including residents of the nearby Plaza Nursing Home. AARP funding helped add ambience and new design elements to the area with the purchase and installation of 12 lighting fixtures created by students from the Iowa State University College of Design.

Custom lighting fixture on Main Street in Manning, Iowa / AARP

Gardner, Kansas – The citizens of Gardner want to maintain the traditions of their small but fast-growing community while creating new public spaces to meet the changing needs of residents and visitors. AARP funding helped create a portable parklet in the heart of the community, offering a place to rest in the shade near many facilities. Guided by more than 500 responses to a public input survey, the accessible parklet was equipped with shade canopies, comfortable seating, plants, lighting and is helping build awareness about larger green spaces planned for the area.

Woodbridge, Virginia – In this two-part project at the Woodbridge Senior Center, AARP funding was used to develop a vegetable garden that supplements the meals provided to residents and creates an opportunity for physical activity. The second part of the project involved improvements in an outdoor area that lacked sufficient seating and landscaping, encouraging more social activity.

The task of preparing communities for a future in which older adults are able to live their best lives calls for broad engagement about how to improve housing, transportation and public spaces. Efforts like AARP’s Community Challenge Grant program provide a clear opportunity for landscape architects, planners, community members, and local leaders to come together to craft and deliver real solutions in communities. Little by little, working hand in hand, together we’ll prepare our communities – and our country – for the age-friendly future that awaits us.

Submit your challenge grant application by April 17, 2019.

This guest post is by Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP.

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