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A College Course for the Community

When Erie County, New York, needed to develop an aging-friendly Action Plan, the work became a grad school assignment

An exterior photograph of Hayes Hall at State University of New York Buffalo

Photo by Douglas Levere for the University at Buffalo

Hayes Hall houses the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning.

Located in Western New York State along the shore of Lake Erie, Erie County is home to nearly one million people — about 30 percent of whom are age 55 or older. In 2014, the county joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities and launched Age Friendly Erie County (AFEC), a collaborative initiative of local organizations "committed to creating a vibrant, inclusive community for residents to grow up and grow old."

Erie's age-friendly network is facilitated by the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA) at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, the Erie County Department of Senior Services, AARP New York and the local human services agency People Inc. After completing the work to assess the needs of the region's older adults, AFEC chose to pursue an academic partnership for the next step — creating a community action plan — by engaging graduate students and faculty at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. The university's architecture and planning school is the only program in the nation to offer an inclusive design tract in its master's of architecture curriculum.

Bumjoon Kang, an urban and regional planning professor at the university, and Ph.D. candidate Molly Ranahan, a research analyst at Erie County Senior Services, came up with the plan to host a "Master's studio" course at the university with Age Friendly Erie County as its client. Nine students enrolled in the course, which was offered during the spring semester of 2017.

"The planning students not only added value to the strategic planning and direction of Age Friendly Erie County, but the studio was an effective way to engage younger people in making meaningful contributions to creating an age-friendly community," says Brittany Perez, an occupational therapist and senior research associate at IDeA. "The students learned a lot about our older adult community, took ownership for addressing their community participation barriers, and realized how many age-friendly solutions align with their own visions for healthy neighborhoods." 

Following are excerpts from the course syllabus:

URP 581: Age-Friendly Erie County

Session: Spring 2017 | Credits: 6

Instructor: Bumjoon Kang, Ph.D.

Class Time: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1-5:40 pm

Planning Issue and Studio Objectives: By 2030, the population of people over the age of 65 will double in the United States. This demographic shift is known as population aging. Erie County will see a substantial increase in the population of older adults both in size and as a percentage of the population.

The studio will connect the age-friendly efforts of the existing plan in the region with input and specific needs expressed by older residents to create a vision for what people want their neighborhoods to be like as they grow older. This vision will inform recommendations that may be integrated into the region’s planning efforts in transportation, housing, outdoor spaces and buildings and other areas.

In the studio, students will learn:

  • Why we need to plan for seniors
  • Elements needed in age-friendly planning
  • Plan making process
  • Integrating the plan into the broader planning system

Client: Erie County Senior Services and Age Friendly Erie County asks the studio to develop an age-friendly plan. A detailed work scope will be determined through meetings with the client.

Work Plan:

  • Phase 1: Understand the objectives
  • Phase 2: Understand the Community
  • Phase 3: Analysis and Proposal
  • Phase 4: Production

Readings and resources for the course included links to the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities Tool Kit, aging-related content from the World Health Organization, materials about the 8 Domains of Livability and articles from publications including the Journal of Gerontological Social Work, Journal of Aging & Social Policy, Australasian Journal on Ageing, Canadian Journal on Aging, and Journal of Urban Health Ageing International.

The final outcome of the studio was a professional-level planning report, the contents and formats for which were determined by the students. On May 18, the class made a presentation and distributed its published plan, both of which can be found on the reports page at Age Friendly Erie County. The plan developed by the students has become a guide for the final Age Friendly Erie County action plan, which will likely incorporate elements of the Master's studio report.

Two reports and a map from Age-Friendly Erie

Materials from Age Friendly Erie County

The graduate students developed a presentation and action plan for Erie County (shown in the map). Click on this image to visit the Age Friendly Erie County website to learn more and download both publications.

Article published September 2017

New York is in the Network

AARP New York is working with the many New York towns, cities and villages in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities.


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