When family physician Kathleen Beine transferred her practice to Kingsport, she didn’t think twice about offering the same common sense advice that had served her patients well in Kentucky.
“I’d tell people to walk for 20 minutes every evening,” said Beine, 59. “Unfortunately, I came to recognize that I was actually telling my patients to go play in traffic.”
A small town nestled at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, Kingsport had virtually no sidewalks in its newer neighborhoods. Existing sidewalks were in disrepair and downtown had ceased to be a destination. Some businesses were shuttered and few pedestrians ventured out.
The city had hewed to a decades-old growth pattern that emphasized roadways over greenways and suburban sprawl over public spaces.
Now volunteers like Beine are taking the lead in promoting quality-of-life changes to make cities more livable for people, particularly as they age.
Kingsport now requires new residential developments to have sidewalks. A downtown outdoor sculpture walk draws lunchtime strollers. And retirees are buying new downtown loft spaces where they can live, dine and shop—all within walking distance.
AARP Tennessee is actively promoting these efforts across the state. The benefits: healthy living environments, a sense of community, and opportunities for mobility and independence as people grow older.
“From AARP’s perspective, there is an understanding that supporting livability issues benefits not only boomers, it really benefits the entire community,” said Patrick Willard, advocacy director for AARP Tennessee.
Willard said livability isn’t confined to creating more green spaces and sidewalks. It also includes engaging homebuilders about new home construction that accommodates people as they age; ensuring public transportation is convenient and accessible; and promoting health and safety initiatives.
In Nashville, a task force established by Mayor Karl Dean is analyzing how the city can respond to the needs of the large boomer population as it enters its retirement years. Willard, a task force member who is compiling a report for the mayor, says the next step is a committee that engages volunteers and tries to remake a city that ranks 444th of 500 in being pedestrian-friendly into a more accessible community.
Tennessee got an overall grade of “C” from the American Society of Civil Engineers report card in its first assessment of the state’s infrastructure. In specific areas:
• D for public transit because of limited service.
• D+ for parks, which have a $100 million backlog in maintenance.
• C for rail service, which is limited.
In Jackson, volunteer John Borner is taking the first steps in a new AARP initiative aiming to make the town of 63,000 more accessible to people who don’t drive.
Equipped with AARP training on how to get involved in a local Metropolitan Planning Organization, Borner is attending local planning meetings and pushing for new sidewalks, bike and walking paths, and expanded bus routes and pickup times.
“It takes a while to figure out how this all works,” Borner said. “But you’ve got to get involved at this level to really make any sort of difference.”
The Tennessee Department of Transportation—in partnership with AARP and other local organizations—is using an $11,000 federal grant to create training programs for older drivers and a booklet on how to discuss when it’s time to stop driving. More information will be available in June on AARP Tennessee’s website.
Anita Wadhwani is a reporter based in Nashville.