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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, Portrait, 5 Questions, Livable Communities

Photo courtesy APA

Carol Rhea, president of the American Planning Association (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.

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3. What can planners — and others — do better in order to create communities that are more livable for people of all ages and abilities, and especially for older adults?

Planners are keenly focused on the changing make-up of their community. With a firm understanding of existing conditions and future trends, planners can increase housing that better meets the needs of older adults, as well as increase access to transportation, recreation and health care options. Among the most important issues for planners is to ensure affordable, accessible and diverse housing and transportation options. Mobility and housing choice are the areas where we have the farthest to go in many communities in the U.S.

Among the areas where planners are most active is in reforming local plans and codes in order to improve housing options and promote the concept of universal design in building codes, street standards and other regulations that govern develop­ment.

While health care infrastructure and capacity is not a common criterion in land use decision-making processes, this consideration can be an effective technique for supporting access to clinical care. Planners are working to better incorporate access to care in the land use decision-making process.

Fundamentally, we all have a stake in this issue. Another of the findings from our poll was that a growing number of Americans value generational diversity and qualities that make their communities work for everyone. Discussions about pedestrian safety, transit options, affordable housing, access to parks and healthy food are all critical to livability.

Everyone can participate in how these concerns are addressed locally through the planning process. One of APA's highest values is to encourage robust public engagement. I believe the voice of the public is essential for developing the plans, codes, legislation and investment that make cities and towns that work for everyone.

4. What programming does APA offer to planners and community leaders who are interested in learning more about the community and infrastructure needs of the 50-plus population?

APA recently adopted a new policy guide on "Aging in Community." The guide proposes a variety of policy solutions from the local to federal level that we believe would help better address the needs of the 50-plus population. Additionally, APA has an array of research and education resources to help residents and leaders address aging in their local plans and codes. We're currently producing a new research report and local tool kit on aging in place that will be available on our website,, later this summer.

One of the greatest resources APA has is our nearly 40,000 members across the country. Local APA chapters have a wealth of state and local level programming. These chapters are great potential partners for AARP members and affiliates to work together to solve the challenges our communities face.

5.  APA, in collaboration with the American Public Health Association, has launched a Healthy Communities initiative to address population health goals. How will this initiative specifically help the 50-plus population?

Plan4Health connects communities across the country, supporting work at the intersection of planning and public health. Anchored by local chapters of APA and members of the American Public Health Association, Plan4Health supports creative partnerships to build sustainable, cross-sector coalitions. 

Each of the projects in the first year of the Plan4Health collaboration are unique, but the main focus of all the projects is to improve outcomes in underserved communities in order to combat two major determinants of chronic disease — the lack of physical activity and the lack of access to nutritious foods. Both are issue areas that disproportionately affect the 50-plus population. The creative solutions our coalition develops will greatly benefit that population in underserved communities as well.

As planners, we want to engage our communities to make changes that will lead to healthier places. By bringing together the complementary strengths of planning and public health — and building partnerships with organizations from a range of sectors and perspectives — we hope to be a catalyst for collective action toward a healthier future.

Aldea Douglas is a project manager on the AARP Livable Communities team.  

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