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The Case for Livable Communities

gathering for the walk audit
Volunteers gathered in front of Ivy Tech do the assessment for the Meridian Street corridor.

*The following article will run in the October / November edition of Indy Midtown Magazine.

Crossing the street shouldn’t mean crossing your fingers.  Whether you’re a mom pushing a stroller and ushering young kids through an intersection, or an older Hoosier strolling back home with a bag of good books from the library, our neighborhoods should be navigable and safe for residents of all ages and abilities.

Unfortunately, we all know that’s not necessarily always the case.  And, now we have a recent report by Health by Design to reaffirm just that.  The local nonprofit that works to promote physical activity and healthy living identified the ten worst areas for pedestrian crashes outside of downtown, after being rightfully concerned that at least 82 people died in more than 1,100 pedestrian crashes between 2010 and 2014.

Midtown is home to three of the areas – West 38 th Street between Boulevard Place and Meridian Street, East 38 th Street from the Indiana State Fairgrounds to Fall Creek Parkway (the reports lists this stretch as going all the way to Sherman Avenue, which is outside of Midtown), and Meridian and Illinois Streets from 14 th to 34 th streets, including extended portions of 16th, 28 th, 29 th, 30 th and 32 nd streets.

Midtown is also home to bike lanes, trails and a thoroughfare to the forthcoming Red Line – not to mention active and engaged residents.  Hence AARP’s involvement with this issue and our collaborative work with Health by Design – we want to ensure that our communities are accessible to and navigable by users of all ages and abilities.

While there’s great discussion about attracting folks to Midtown, let’s not miss the important point about retaining those who have called these neighborhoods home for decades.  AARP surveys consistently show that about 90 percent of the 50-plus population wants to stay in their homes and communities as they age, where they have strong social networks and a sense of familiarity.  Eighty-three percent of Baby Boomers want to stay in the same house when they retire.  In short, they want to age in place.  And, we want to help folks do that.

One way of doing so is through our work with Health by Design, whose next step in tackling these ten worst areas for pedestrian crashes is to assemble a team of professionals, community partners and volunteers to conduct walk assessments.  These assessments will look at a variety of things, such as crosswalks, sidewalks, traffic signals and more.  Those observations combined with demographic profiles of the pedestrians involved in crashes will be used to create countermeasure plans involving education and infrastructure improvement says Health by Design’s Executive Director Kim Irwin.  “We expect there will be some quick, easy and lower-cost interventions possible, such as repainting crosswalks and retiming pedestrian signals,” Irwin continued, “but we also know that some action items – things like adding sidewalks along busy, high-speed corridors – will be long-term and require additional public involvement.”

You’ll often see AARP staff and volunteers donning bright orange safety vests conducting similar walk assessments, reinforcing our commitment to make sure residents of all ages and abilities can safely navigate their communities, with or without a car.  For in order to support that overwhelming majority of folks who want to age in place, whether in Midtown, Merrillville or Marion, they have to be able to get around – to the doctor’s office, to church, to meet with friends, to continue their civic involvement, etc.

And let’s not just stop at simply getting around, but having roads and public places that welcome walking.  Because well, we all need more of that in our lives, right?  The U.S. Surgeon General sure thinks so, evident in his recent call to action that urges cities and towns to conscientiously construct streets and common areas that make walking easier, safer and more pleasant.  To increase the amount of physical activity most Americans are currently getting, the Surgeon General and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have released a set of recommendations on how our communities can be better shaped to encourage residents to walk and bike more.

Where you won’t find us donning bright orange vests, but you hopefully still feel our impact, is in crafting policy.  One of those is Complete Streets, which refers to streets that are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users.  Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities must be able to safely move along and across a complete street.  In 2012 we helped pass a Complete Streets ordinance in Indianapolis, which was unanimously approved by the City-County Council.  Indianapolis’ Complete Streets ordinance calls for decision makers to consider infrastructure for all road users when designing or rebuilding roads in the city.  Following passage of the ordinance, City-County Council President Maggie Lewis said, “As Indianapolis continues to grow, it is essential we plan for the safe and mixed use of our streets and sidewalks.”

In 2014 the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) adopted an internal Complete Streets policy, after countless meetings with advocacy organizations like AARP and Health by Design.  The policy gained national recognition that same year as it was ranked third best of its kind by the National Complete Streets Coalition.

Both organizations were also vocal supporters of the mass transit referendum during the past few Indiana General Assembly sessions, with AARP particularly emphasizing the aging in place angle.  The aging of Hoosiers – by 2030 one in five Americans will be age 65 and older – plus the decrease in driving that often comes with aging, will have a serious impact on our transportation system.  Without access to transportation options, older Hoosiers are in danger of becoming isolated and disengaged.

All of these efforts are pieces of a larger puzzle to make our communities more livable.  AARP defines a livable community as one where affordable and appropriate housing, supportive community services, and adequate mobility options – which facilitate personal independence and the engagement of residents in civic and social life – are available.  To that end, AARP developed an online tool that assesses the livability of communities, aptly named the Livability Index  – Great Neighborhoods for All Ages.

The Livability Index enables individuals and policymakers to evaluate their communities based on a broad set of indicators.  The tool scores communities for services and amenities that affect peoples’ lives the most, like quality healthcare, transportation options and homes that are accessible and affordable for families of varying means.  It works for users of all ages, because when we plan for older adults, we plan for everyone.

The total score for a community – from zero to 100 - is based on the average of seven different categories – health, environment, transportation, engagement, opportunity, housing and neighborhood – which also range from zero to 100.  So, let’s take my Midtown zip code of 46205 for a spin.  The total score is above average – 55 – with particularly high numbers in the housing (65), transportation (63) and environment (63) categories.  The tool not only shows what a community looks like today, but also offers resources and tips to help improve the lackluster areas.

So, please keep an eye out for those bright orange vests doing walkability surveys or a group of AARP volunteers lobbying legislators on mass transit issues because we’re looking out for all Hoosiers as we age, and we want to age in place.

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