SEPTEMBER 12, 2011 / Legacy Project / – By the year 2030, 1 in every 5 Americans will be over 65. Fewer than half of America's cities have even begun to address this demographic shift, and they've generally followed "aging friendly" planning models. The Legacy Project and the City of Tulsa are partnering to take a big-picture Legacy Community Building approach. It overlays generational needs across a lifetime on conventional city planning. The initiative launches with the Tulsa Across the Generations Summit on October 10, 2011.
Some cities are known as good places to raise a family, while others are recognized as nice places to retire. Mayor Dewey Bartlett has a commitment to making Tulsa a great city in which to be born, grow up, have a career and raise a family, and then retire and stay connected to family and community. In other words, a city that responds to generational needs across a lifetime, and brings together all ages for mutual benefit.
"No other value binds a community together through time than the connection we have with each other through the generations," says Bartlett. "Our summit is more than a moment; it's a movement that will inspire our citizens of all ages to join together to build a better tomorrow for Tulsa."
As a big-picture multigenerational research and education project, the Legacy Project is attuned to generational interests. Legacy Project Chair Susan Bosak is excited by what she sees happening in Tulsa.
"It's the perfect storm for real change," says Bosak. "You have a pressing challenge with the demographic shift. You have a city that's not too big and not too small to serve as an international model. You have city leaders genuinely interested in new ideas. And you have a community ready to come together and take action. Tulsa will be the first city to take this kind of big-picture approach to the issue of aging."
The Legacy Community Building approach Bosak has developed, based on more than a decade of research, involves using a seven-generation systems decision-making matrix.
"It helps individuals and communities look at the bigger picture within a time frame they can relate to," explains Bosak. "With increases in longevity, it's most likely you'll have contact with seven generations: your own, and then three generations before you – parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents – and three generations after you – children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren."
The legacy approach takes into consideration needs across a person's lifetime, needs between generations, and even global needs like the environment, the quintessential intergenerational challenge.
In terms of city planning, with a greater proportion of older adults, there are definitely physical changes needed like curb cuts and ramps, as well as technological innovations. But creating physical spaces and devices to meet needs is not enough. A high quality of life for older adults also requires supports from the entire community – and a different view of aging.
"Aging is really something we do from the moment we're born," says Bosak. "If we thought more about the whole of our lives, rather than fearing and denying getting old, individuals and communities would make different choices. This is about making those different choices, and bringing young and old together in new ways."
Too often, the needs of older adults are seen as a drain on communities. But older adults have tremendous potential as resources in the community, as do young people. Unfortunately, most communities operate under an age-segregated framework. Solutions to chronic social problems like limited housing options, poor schools, and lack of support for families are difficult when each problem is addressed by age-specific rather than whole-community solutions. If young and old can be brought together, the result is greater social supports, and in turn greater effectiveness and even cost savings.
We're living longer lives than ever before. At its most fundamental level, this human longevity creates the possibility for multigenerational families and communities.
"Because it is the intergenerational transmission of culture, values, and wisdom – the legacies between generations – that's so essential to our humanity," says Bosak, "strategies that strengthen interaction and connections between generations contribute enormously to our stock of social capital."
"What we learn, what we teach, and what we pass from one generation to another is truly what keeps our memories, hopes, and dreams alive," adds Bartlett. "How we pass our values, our heritage, and our legacy from one time to another can be taught and can be learned."
Prior to the Across Generations Summit on October 10, the Legacy Project is researching the intergenerational assets – sites, programs, services – currently available in Tulsa. The Summit itself will bring together community leaders and advocates for children, youth, and older adults to become allies in a comprehensive, shared intergenerational agenda.
Bosak will be a keynote speaker at the Summit. Donna Butts, Executive Director of Generations United, a national organization promoting intergenerational strategies, programs, and policies, will share information on a new awards program recognizing intergenerational cities. Also presenting will be Dr. Nancy Henkin, Executive Director of The Intergenerational Center at Temple University which runs Communities for All Ages, a national initiative that helps communities address critical issues from an intergenerational perspective.
The work started at the summit will be continued by the Legacy Project. There will also be a community education and involvement program over several months so that young and old throughout Tulsa can come together to dream a new future for the city.
Community education is often a missing component in strategies undertaken by other cities. Effective change is undermined by ageist stereotypes and a general fear of aging in our culture. "The old often aren't seen as important, relevant, or useful," says Bosak. "I've spent many years working with all ages to help people understand that this isn't about 'them' – old people – but about you and us."
To open intergenerational dialogue, Bosak's book Dream will be used in Tulsa as part of a One City, One Book program. Dream, which has won 11 national awards including a Visionary Award, is illustrated by 15 top artists from around the world and is a multilayered story for children and adults about hopes and dreams across a lifetime – from the time you're a baby to the time you're an older adult.
Families will be encouraged to read and discuss the Dream book, and older adults will be invited into schools to read the book to students. In turn, as part of the Legacy Project's annual Listen to a Life Essay Contest, children and teens will be encouraged to go into the community to interview older adults about their life stories. A special Legacy Award winner will be chosen from among the Tulsa entries. Tulsa is also bringing the Dream Exhibit to the city to encourage young and old to dream a new future together.
"All too often, cities implement piecemeal programs that, while well-intentioned, do little to address the underlying social issues and involve people of all ages. So they're not as effective as they could be," says Bosak. "I'm looking forward to working with the Tulsa Mayor's Office as well as the citizens of Tulsa to move the city into a future that recognizes, respects, and meets the needs of all ages."
The Legacy Project will create a detailed case study of the Tulsa experience as a model for other cities to take on the intergenerational legacy challenge.