By Dennis J. Wilson
When better sidewalk maintenance was listed as a top priority in a survey of Blue Springs residents last year, Scott Allen saw it as a red flag.
Allen is the community development director for Blue Springs (population 53,000), a suburb east of Kansas City. Sidewalk construction and repair was made a priority. It was not difficult to document.
“You can see where you are missing them; you can see where they need improvements,” Allen said.
The Blue Springs City Council earmarked nearly $1.2 million for immediate sidewalk work and began to dedicate 10 percent of its annual street maintenance budget to sidewalks. Before this commitment, the money spent on sidewalks was “incidental,” rather than a budgeted amount.
“I don’t want to say it was zero percent before, but it was not specifically identified,” Allen said. “To pull out 10 percent is not always a lot of money, but lately it’s been upwards of $200,000 every year, which is pretty significant.” Last year, the City Council provided an additional $1.18 million for sidewalk maintenance.
Blue Springs’ efforts are emblematic of how Kansas City-area communities—and others across the country—are addressing the needs of an aging population. From 2000 to 2010, the overall population of Blue Springs grew by nearly 10 percent, while the number of those 50 and older grew by 46 percent.
“There are no more Benjamin Button neighborhoods,” said AARP Missouri state director Craig Eichelman, referring to the story of the man who grew younger.
“Neighborhoods and communities are getting older. People in those cities are getting older. Boomers want to move back into the city. The generations behind them—Gen X and the millennials—they want the same thing. They want housing mixed with retail, access to cultural events, good public transportation,” he said. “The livable community work comes down to ‘Is this a great place to live for everybody?’ ”
One example Eichelman cites is the sidewalk “curb cut,” which eliminates a section of the curb at intersections and replaces it with a small ramp.
“It’s great for someone in a wheelchair or for someone who is walking with a cane and would have to step off the curb, but it’s also a great thing for a mother with a baby in a stroller,” Eichelman said. “Everybody benefits from that type of design. It makes the street more walkable, and safer.”
Offering more options
Around the country, AARP has been urging localities to help people age in their communities by providing safe, walkable streets; age-friendly housing and transportation options; access to needed services; and opportunities for residents of all ages to participate in community life.
Phillip J. Hanson, president and CEO of the Truman Heartland Community Foundation in Independence, said communities realize that citizens want to have more options than the usual single-family dwelling with a big backyard.
“Empty-nester boomers are looking for housing options that are maintenance-free so they can lock the door, travel for a month and not have to be concerned about their home,” Hanson said. “They are also looking for places with services, restaurants and retail in the neighborhood. All these things are also appealing to millennials. There is a tremendous overlap.”
To address those housing needs, the Blue Springs comprehensive plan calls for an increase in the quantity and diversity of housing types so that non-single-family options are at least 30 percent of local housing stock. It has set a goal of creating 750 residential units in the downtown area.
Providing transportation to those unable or not wanting to drive is a concern, said Hanson, whose organization provides assistance to a variety of communities around Kansas City.
“In our car-centric society, this is a formidable challenge. There is no simple solution,” he said, adding that future solutions will involve volunteer driver programs, new technology and better coordination among localities.
Blue Springs’ Allen said, “Physically connecting neighborhoods to public amenities and daily business needs has been limited, and our planning efforts for the next few years will be focused on restoring and improving those connections.”
Dennis J. Wilson is a writer living in St. Louis, Mo.