An Interdisciplinary Approach to Aging and the Built Environment


A Retrospective of the New Cities Initiative

The University of Kansas

As our New Cities Initiative enters its fourth academic year and our Boomer Futures Think Tank grows in the number of people who follow our activities, it is time to provide a short retrospective of our work so far.

Since 2010, New Cities has been an interdisciplinary, undergraduate and graduate educational and research project that has brought together faculty and students from the Department of American Studies; the Gerontology Center; the Schools of Architecture, Design and Planning; Social Welfare; Law; Education; and Business; the departments of Psychology, Sociology, and English; the Landon Center on Aging; the Transportation Research Institute; the Information and Telecommunication Technology Center; and others to study, envision, and facilitate the building of places, architecture, and communities that respond to the diverse needs of a nation that is getting older fast. In the work of this project, we have hoped to embody four central goals of the University of Kansas:

  • Energizing the Educational Environment,
  • Driving Discovery and Innovation,
  • Engaging Scholarship for Public Impact, and
  • Elevating Doctoral Education.

We energized the educational environment through a studio-based, interdisciplinary approach to teaching and research in 210 Snow Hall. Studio-based education meant first of all establishing a place to bring the interdisciplinary process together and to give that place and process identity and purpose. We made this studio flexible through furniture and technologies that we could move and change according to the kinds of activities and programs we were undertaking. “It helps us to “chase knowledge out of its categories,” as Wes Jackson, one of our Think Tank speakers, exclaimed.

The interdisciplinary process provoked us to rethink our concepts of aging, to reconstruct aging, and to imagine environments that facilitate longer, meaningful living in an intergenerational context. After three years of difficult work, we are comfortable with the reality that the driving edge of discovery and innovation needed to create places, architecture, and communities for all ages and especially in an aging society will come out of the interstitial connections between many disciplines.

What especially strengthened and began to drive our interdisciplinary process was its project-driven nature. We learned from scientists that they work especially well together when they have a real problem to solve. When real problems present themselves, we often need to collaborate with others who think differently than we do. In this case, we ignore disciplinal boundaries and consider other ideas. Since our task was project based, we took seriously the university’s goal not just to study, research, and think but also to act, to engage our work for the public good and to have a positive impact in our community by facilitating the construction of new communities and new cities that embody new concepts of aging.

Our initiative resonated initially with the thinking of leading scholars of gerontology in the United States, five of whom visited our campus in 2011 and who lectured in downtown Lawrence and in our Think Tank on aging, culture, and the built environment. We continue to bring in leading thinkers in many fields from many universities and industries, as well as from KU to help us grow and evolve our ideas. These great people, whom many of you know and have heard in our Boomer Futures Think Tank, have significantly changed our ideas about aging. You can view many of their presentations here.

To maintain our inventiveness, we continued to bring top scholars and teachers to our Boomer Futures Think Tank. For example, in academic year 2012-2013 Professors Marilyn Rantz and Marjorie Skubic from the University of Missouri made presentations on community-based nursing and new telemedicine technologies. They have done extraordinary research and created the first aging-in-place, continuing-care, and retirement community in Columbia, Missouri. Our own KU Professor Gregory Thomas from the Department of Design followed them with a talk about smart garages.  Our first speaker in spring 2013 was Dr. Phillip Stafford, director of the Center on Aging and Community at Indiana University, who is an authority on intergenerational communities. Dr. Bob Honea, director of KU’s Transportation Research Institute, talked about innovative transportation ideas, and Dr. Lydia Pugh from the Aging Research Institute discussed governance models for intergenerational communities.

Professor David Ekerdt, director of KU’s Gerontology Center, believes that our Boomer Futures Think Tank has elevated the University of Kansas’s reputation in gerontology circles in the United States. Dr. Laura L. Carstensen, Stanford University professor of psychology, Fairleigh S. Dickinson professor of public policy, and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, has said that our “initiative is inventive enough to begin to analyze the full complexity of the immense task before the United States of building new cities for millions of people.”

We have also introduced aging issues into KU’s architectural studios. We are especially grateful to Professors Mahbub Rashid, J. William Carswell, and Bruce Johnson, who used aging as a design theme in their studios in academic year 2012-2013. Professor Cheryl Lester of the English and American studies departments has offered three courses on aging in literature and film.

In observing and participating in the studios and courses, I have been surprised at how quickly students understand the significance of aging in their own lives and families, as well as the implications of aging for our nation. In my view, our students are more likely to accept aging as an important topic of study than many faculty who, like most of us, would prefer to ignore aging altogether. Another problem is that the buildings associated with aging seldom reach the level of architecture and therefore our faculty turn to other building types in their studios. It continues to be our job to inform and persuade architects and faculty that we are at the cusp of a pivotal cultural change in which the architecture associated with aging must be transformed into one that no longer separates older people from other generations, no longer stigmatizes older people with a “nursing home” expression, and in the future facilitates and articulates the processes and values of intergenerational living.

New research initiatives on aging at the University of Kansas are also slowly emerging. In the School of Architecture, Design, and Planning, Professor Mahbub Rashid has proposed a Center for Aging Design (CAD) that we will be considering in 2013-2014. We are also reaching out to other universities to join with the University of Kansas in a regional research initiative. To that end we received a $50,000 seed grant from KU’s Research Investment Council to write a National Institute of Health “interdisciplinary aging research infrastructure” grant proposal to establish a network of universities along I-70 highway in Kansas and Missouri [Internal link] that will work together on aging research. Faculties from the University of St. Louis, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Kansas Medical Center, Rockhurst University, the University of Kansas, Washburn University, and Kansas State University will join this network and meet in November 2013 in Lawrence, Kansas, to develop the main ideas behind this NIH proposal.

The most significant extension of our New Cities project has the application of our study and research to the planning of an intergenerational community in Lawrence. By reaching out to the community, we have been a catalyst in the creation of a public-private partnership that could undertake such a large project. 2012-2013 has represented a real breakthrough in this regard. First, we reached out to our community and were instrumental in writing the City of Lawrence and Douglas County’s Retiree Retention and Attraction Task Force Report, which recommends that an intergenerational retirement community be built in Lawrence within five years. You can find that report here.

Since the publication of that report in May 2012, representatives of four main institutions of Lawrence—Douglas County, the City of Lawrence, Lawrence Memorial Hospital, and the University of Kansas—agree that building an intergenerational community with a progressive philosophy and architecture in Lawrence is potentially a win/win for all our citizens and institutions. We all agree that building an intergenerational community in Lawrence will help our economy, health, and community well-being and will project our city’s image nationally as a great place for people of all ages to live. We have also initiated discussions with developers and financial institutions about what we are considering. We have consulted with retirement community experts, and we have visited retirement communities in Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. We expect this activity to continue.

How all the decisions are going to be made is beginning to come clear. We have established the Campus Village Board of Directors that will govern the intergenerational community. The board is composed of fifteen leaders representing diverse parts of our community. We have decided that the Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) component of the intergenerational community should be a not-for-profit organization, and the Campus Village Board of Directors will appoint a special board to manage the CCRC. The Campus Village Board also recognizes that parts of the larger intergenerational community will have to be for-profit because of financial and legal constraints. Depending on the size of the project, several for-profit entities could be involved. The Campus Village Board, the not-for-profit organization and board, and the for-profit entities will work together to ensure that we are all striving to fulfill the goals of the intergenerational community. We have already interviewed a development corporation that might undertake the complex tasks of planning, financing, and building our intergenerational community. We will soon begin negotiations with KU about the university’s role in the development of a Living Laboratory in the intergenerational community. Through this complicated process of decision-making, building may begin in 2014.

We have done our work with the help of many people. We are especially grateful to Lee Foster, president of Commons Development Company, for his early contributions and for his continuing support and presence at our meetings and in our community. Former Lawrence City Commissioner Hugh Carter has been a stalwart partner and able friend in our endeavor. Bob Honea, director of the KU’s Transportation Research Institute (TRI), has believed in us all along and awarded us a grant to fund our work in 2012-2013. This grant also enabled us to publish New Cities, a book of student designs that may be purchased online from Lulu. John Gaunt, dean of KU’s School of Architecture, Design, and Planning, gave us space to work in 210 Snow Hall and graciously provided the salary of the New Cities project director for 2012-2013. Provost Jeffrey Vitter and a grant from the Research Investment Council funded this salary for 2013-2014. Professors Mahbub Rashid, J. William Carswell, and Bruce Johnson took up our cause and introduced aging issues to their design studios. Professor Cheryl Lester from the departments of American studies and english is one of the founding faculty members of the New Cities Initiative. Dr. Susan Kemper, Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of Psychology and senior scientist in KU’s Gerontology Center, agreed to take on a university-wide academic leadership role and is also a member of the Campus Village Board of Directors. Rebecca Peterson from KU’s Research and Graduate Studies is helping us find support funds from foundations and government entities. Although we have no resources for staff, we benefit from volunteers who have been part of our team, including John Shreve, Brenna Buchanan Young, Bob Buchanan, Allison Steffen, Jenny Curatola, Joel Sanderson, and Barbara Watkins. Pat Peery, senior vice president of Lane4 Property Group in Kansas City, made a generous contribution that will fund our Boomer Futures Think Tank in 2013-2014. Throughout our first three years, David Ekerdt, director of the KU Gerontology Center, has advised us about the significance of the intergenerational innovation we hope to make. Without the support of the Gerontology Center our initiative would not have gotten very far.

New Cities has been a robust learning experience for me over the past three years. I said last summer to Marilyn Rantz, Curators Professor of Nursing at the University of Missouri, that I wished the most important project of my life had not waited until the end of my career. She suggested that I would not have been ready for it any earlier. She was no doubt right, and I am happy for this wonderful opportunity to serve the University of Kansas, our Lawrence and Douglas County community, and our nation as we face one of the most challenging problems in our history. America will never get any younger. How shall we respond?

Dennis Domer
New Cities Project Director

KU Today