Livable Communities Interview

5 Questions for Carol Rhea

The new president of the American Planning Association talks about creating livable places (with and without a magic wand)

Carol Rhea, president, American Planning Association, 2015-2017

Carol Rhea, president of the American Planning Association (APA) — Photo courtesy APA

As the leader of the American Planning Association, the world's largest organization of planning professionals (urban planners, transportation planners, housing planners, etc.), Carol Rhea educates and encourages her members to create communities that offer better choices for where and how people work and live.

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The Alabama-based Rhea, a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners (FAICP), is a partner with the Orion Planning Group, brings three decades of planning experience to the two-year volunteer post, which she assumed in April 2015.

In addition to serving as a planning consultant, Rhea, who earned both her bachelor's degree (in earth science) and master's (in geography) from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has been a city, county, regional and state planner in North Carolina. While serving as the planning director for Monroe, North Carolina, she developed the city's first land development plan, streamlined the municipality's permitting program and established downtown design guidelines.

1. As president of the American Planning Association, you help guide the work of planners around the country. What are your livable communities-related goals for the APA?

I believe we're in a pivotal moment for promoting more livable communities. Across the country there's a resurgence of interest among the public and policy makers about what makes a city, town or neighborhood thrive. It's also a particularly important time for this conversation since so many of the critical issues we face — from income inequality to health care — are related to how we build our communities.

Planning is especially well suited to help lead this conversation since plans give citizens a direct voice in shaping their future and they establish a comprehensive approach to achieving the goals and advancing the vision of residents. Planning for livability is about figuring out how to connect the many discrete policy decisions that communities face, such as how housing, transportation and land use can all work together effectively and efficiently.

APA is focused on critical livability issues that are confronting communities across the country. These areas — linking planning and public health, promoting resiliency, addressing social equity and demographic changes and investing and improving infrastructure — are essential to creating genuinely livable communities and building neighborhoods of lasting value.

2. In your opinion, how are communities in the U.S. prepared or not prepared for the nation's quickly growing population of older adults?

I think awareness of the importance of planning for an aging population is strong among local decision makers and certainly among planners. APA conducted a national poll in 2014 that revealed how deeply Americans care about this issue and their concerns about whether their community is adequately prepared.

The growth in the population of older adults creates a unique opportunity and responsibility. It's a chance to apply sound planning approaches and policies that serve the spectrum of needs and abilities of all residents. APA supports the creation and integration of housing, land-use, transportation, economic, social service and health systems that enable a high quality of life for people of all ages and abilities.

A multigenerational planning approach ensures that the needs of all residents are met and that older members of the communities are not at risk of social isolation, poverty, declining health and poor economic well-being. The planning community can be a leader in encouraging comprehensive approaches and in mobilizing resources to enhance the quality of life of our aging population.

There's a lot of innovation happening around the country. For example, cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta are leading the way in creating age-friendly communities focused on livability. Atlanta has developed a great lifelong communities program. Austin, Texas, and Pima County, Arizona, have adopted new codes that incorporate significant universal design components.

However, all too many communities are woefully unprepared to deal with the mobility needs of an aging population. This mobility gap is made worse by limited housing options.

Next page: How planners can help. Plus: A magical solution. »

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