Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

I recently finished reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and the timing was eerily perfect. My 83 year old grandfather has been struggling with health issues which made reading the book easier to relate to and comprehend. I was too young to remember much about the nursing homes my great grandmother and grandmother were in, but with my grandfather I’m now questioning what is the best care for him, what other options are available, and how he feels about his situation.

Going back to the book itself, it hits on a wide variety of topics, all related to aging and death. The author has several examples of how different cultures handle aging that paint a picture of how we can improve here in the U.S. While its very difficult for our current society to live with their parents until they die, its not entirely impossible. In the land use world, we have finally returned to the idea of the “mother in-law unit” which offers a completely separate space for aging parents to live, while in close proximity to the family. This situation offers the best of both worlds—parents do not have to go to a nursing home, but do not impose on their children and they have their own space. This only works until the parent can no longer make it without assistance. As I have found recently, it can be very expensive to have a nurse come to the home daily to care for an aging parent, leaving this task to the family who often do not have time to be home the necessary amount to take care of them.

A solution offered in the book is the assisted living facility—the original style of assisted living—not what for-profit companies have redesigned it to be. Decades ago the assisted living facility was built to allow aging people to live in a communal building, but were not mandated by the schedules and routines enforced in today’s facilities. They had freedom to make their own decisions. They could eat when they wanted to, take their medications only if they wanted, and sleep as late as they desired. The benefit was medical staff was there to help when necessary. We need housing that allows this type of freedom, so our elders do not feel like they are giving up all control.

Another option in the book was a neighborhood support program like Beacon Hill Village in Boston or Athens Village in Ohio. Residents pay an annual fee ($400 per year in one instance) for services that allow them to stay in their own home. The company hires a handyman, nurse, coordinator, and transportation, all available to the members when they need it. They are free to carry on their lives without drastically altering their routines. I wonder how much longer my grandpa could have stayed in his home if this were available where he lived.

One problem with this type of service is the actual home itself. Often, the houses our elderly are living in are not safe, nor do they make it easy for them to navigate their daily routines. In my grandparents case, they lived in a split level, so stairs were required to come and go or do laundry. New construction nationally is focusing on building one-level, zero entry homes. These homes are void of steps that can cause a more unstable adult to fall and break a hip, a sure way to end up in a nursing home permanently. These types of homes can offer a longer independent life for aging people, especially when combined with to the types of services available in Beacon Hill Village. In my job I’m often conducting housing surveys and time and again, the number one housing type for 55+ individuals always comes back as a small independent home with some services provided. The traditional assisted living facility is almost always dead last.

As the book describes, its important for aging people to have some responsibility as it creates purpose for the elderly. In one example, the author describes a nursing home that added a few birds to each residents room. Just the simple responsibility of watching their activity and reporting back to the nursing staff improved the physical and mental health of most of the patients. One of the only things I remember from my great grandmothers nursing home was a large glass enclosure with birds at the end of the hall. While I’m sure it was nice to look at and listen to, it really didn’t have benefits beyond that. I doubt residents had any part in caring for the birds.

I was able to draw direct parallels for the lessons in the book to my daily work in planning for cities. Based on the authors teachings, we should not be building assisted living and nursing homes out on the edge of town, but at the heart of the community. Putting them in a space like the town square allows them to easily maintain interaction and independence. They get the care they need with the ability to walk a short distance for coffee or to the library. Mixing them with other uses in the same building is important as well. Many communities are experimenting with assisted living facilities that have daycare’s within. What better way to give residents a purpose than to pair them with young children to watch over. Last and most important, by building homes that are fit for aging individuals, they can downsize into a more comfortable home, freeing up the homes for young families that need the extra space and can live with the stairs.

As in medicine, the topic of listening to the real needs of the elderly population, is all to forgotten in the field of planning. We need to make more of an effort to think about residents reaching and exceeding the age of 55 and what they will need to live a meaningful and engaged life. As planners, we can encourage or prohibit this through zoning and land use regulations. We should allow mixed uses, encourage location near activity centers, and require the buildings themselves to reflect an open and engaging environment. It’s what the aging clearly desire and what they deserve.

Suburban Nation

Suburban Nation

I enjoy being able read books that were recommended when I was in school, but I was so bogged down with required readings and projects that I never had the time to read them. Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck is one of those books. I was reminded of it after reading Walkable City by Jeff Speck and have had it on my reading list for awhile. I kept thinking I knew all the principles they were stating and it seemed like obvious observations, but then I realized it was because of the teachings they published almost two decades ago that I knew all these concepts. Theses ideas now pervade the planning profession and school curriculum. So reading Suburban Nation was akin to going back to the basics and understanding the reasoning behind why we do what we do as planners.

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The Past and Future City by Stephanie Meeks

The Past and Future City by Stephanie Meeks

Places bring people together and relate our history. While preservation is thought of primarily as ornate and important buildings, it is often the ordinary buildings and neighborhoods that are imbued with meaning through stories and memories. Our sense of self is defined by places, where we are from and what we have learned are all tied to place.

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Copenhagenize by Mikael Colville-Anderson

Copenhagenize by Mikael Colville-Anderson

I have not had the opportunity to visit Copenhagen, but definitely have it on my list for a future vacation after reading Copenhagenize by Mikael Colville-Anderson. It would be incredible to bike in a city that has made a commitment to more than just providing some bike infrastructure, but making a citywide network of separated and prioritized biking infrastructure. American cities set speed limits based on what cars do, whereas cities like Copenhagen set limits based on pedestrian and bike safety. It just shows that in order to have a truly equal transportation platform in a city, the way decisions are made needs to change.

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The New Urban Crisis by Richard Florida

The New Urban Crisis by Richard Florida

The new urban crisis does not have a simple definition. According to Florida, it encompasses the gap between superstar cities and all other cities where success of superstar cities creates high housing costs and inequity, pushing out the working and service class. The growing inequality, segregation and sorting in all metro areas creates winners and losers and a shrinking middle class. What this results in is changing the dynamic from cities versus suburbs to a patchwork of poverty throughout all regions. The suburbs, once a haven for the white middle class are now seeing rising crime, poverty, and segregation.

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Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson

Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson

Despite being published almost ten years ago, Retrofitting Suburbia has many relevant lessons for salvaging suburban sprawl created by generations before us that took the term Euclidean zoning and ran with it. They left downtown's and created separated districts in the suburbs. One area was for the office towers on the highway, the other on the rail lines was for industry, and removed a safe distance away were winding neighborhoods for the single-family home.

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The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

When I started reading The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein I already knew about FHA's discriminatory practices in lending and redlining from previous research for creating a local historic district in Lincoln, Nebraska. This is also how I found out about restrictive covenants that prohibited people from living in a house based on race, religion, and nationality. But what I did not know prior to this book was that racial segregation went far beyond these practices and was part of a broad swath of government policies aimed at segregating America. This de jure segregation was neither "subtle nor intangible," as the author puts it. 

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Snob Zones by Lisa Prevost

Snob Zones by Lisa Prevost

In cities across America, residents balk at the idea of density. "Putting twenty-eight homes on just under four acres is crazy." This is almost the exact density of my neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis which seems perfect to me. My yard is just the right size to mow with a reel lawn mower, but still large enough for my vegetable garden and dogs to run a little. I understand some people do not want to hear their neighbors talking or see them from their back yard, but cities cannot all wait for the next town over to provide more housing. This may have been accepted as recent as the 1980's, but those kinds of development plans are no longer legal.

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Street Fight by Janette Sadik-Khan

Street Fight by Janette Sadik-Khan

One of the most interesting books I have read this year was Street Fight by Janette Sadik-Khan. The title may be misleading for those in the planning profession, but it truly is the story of a fight over space in the streets. Space for not only cars, but pedestrians and bicyclists too. So many years were devoted to building six lane in town "highways" that our cities have become inhospitable places for individuals that either have to or choose to walk or bike to get around. While working as the Transportation Commissioner in New York City, Janette changed the way not only New Yorkers, but cities across the U.S. thought about who our streets should be designed for.

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Bike Lanes Are White Lanes by Melody Hoffmann

Bike Lanes Are White Lanes by Melody Hoffmann

For decades bicycle advocates fought against standard transportation planning methods that put the car above all other modes of transportation. They were persistent and finally gained ground in most major cities. As Justin Spinney said, "biking is understood as apple pie; no one can hate apple pie." The problem now that we have fairly equal treatment of bicycle infrastructure as vehicular is we can see the impacts they have had on low income and minority neighborhoods. 

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Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire, and War Ravaged the State

Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire, and War Ravaged the State

When I began reading Minnesota 1918: When Flue, Fire, and War Ravaged the State I thought it would be merely an interesting historical account of events. Early into the book I realized how closely tied to city planning the historical account was. The effects of the fall 1918 fires devastated the northeast portion of the state. Entire towns were leveled, while others were spared. This meant cities had to make decisions on how and where they would rebuild. The Spanish flu pandemic that was raging around the world, was especially detrimental to the Minnesota residents left homeless, forced to live in small, crowded quarters. Again, this had a drastic effect on cities with daily life and the need to build more hospitals to accommodate the sick.

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Walkable City by Jeff Speck

Walkable City by Jeff Speck

I stopped buying books after about the third time I moved, realizing they weigh a ton, but after checking Walkable City by Jeff Speck out from the library, I wished I had just purchased it. The number of sticky notes stuffed into the book from reading on the bus caused me twice as much work as I transferring them to my notes later. All the sticky notes reflect what a great source of knowledge and ideas this book is. I found many quotes, including this one from page 3:

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The Art of Building Cities by Camillo Sitte

The Art of Building Cities by Camillo Sitte

My family has come to know that I love to read books, especially if they are related to planning. So this past Christmas, my sister-in-law gave me the Art of Building Cities by Camillo Sitte. I am surprised I have yet to come across this book, especially when I was conducting research for my public square paper last summer. This book was written and published in 1896, but the teachings within are still relevant today. Some however will be very difficult to implement given the rigid grid we chose to lay our cities out with.

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Route 66 by Jim Hinckley

Route 66 by Jim Hinckley

Anytime I hear the name Route 66 I immediately think of the animated movie Cars. Little did I know that those cartoon vehicles were based on real people and the town is a compilation of real cities along the highway that stretches from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. Route 66 was established in 1926 and takes up much of the National Old Trails Highway which was the primary way to travel during the early 1900's. Route 66 officially ceased to be recognized as part of the official highway system in 1984. It was replaced by the Interstate Highway System started in 1956. 

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Divided Highways by Tom Lewis

Divided Highways by Tom Lewis

No single act of congress has so drastically changed the American landscape like the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act signed by President Eisenhower. Originally expected to cost $25 billion and take 12 years to create the Interstate System, it was not completed until 1992 at a cost of $114 billion. It is easy to look back now and see the glaring problems of the system and criticize the engineers of the 1950's and 1960's, but they were just trying to solve the transportation system lying in front of them. Their failure came when they ignored the socioeconomic and environmental problems created by the system.

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City of Parks by David C. Smith

City of Parks by David C. Smith

I read the City of Parks by David C. Smith shortly after moving to the Twin Cities. I had visited a few of the parks, but was fascinated by the rich history that encompassed the Minneapolis park system. Until reading the book, I did not know that an independent board of elected representatives ran the park system instead of a city department. It was not easy however to get the park board established. 

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The Exploding Metropolis

The Exploding Metropolis

Despite what it may appear, back in the 1950's when the car was starting to take over the city, there were people concerned. William Whyte Jr., along with Francis Bello, Symour Freedgood, Daniel Seligman, and the infamous Jane Jacobs each wrote a chapter to contribute to the book The Exploding Metropolis. Their topics ranged from designing downtown's from the pedestrian, not architectural perspective view, slum creation, urban sprawl, and the strength and power of government officials.

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Milwaukee Avenue by Robert Roscoe

Milwaukee Avenue by Robert Roscoe

When we first moved to Minneapolis, my husband and I relied heavily on our friends to navigate us as we biked around the city. On one of these early excursions, they took us on what seemed like a peculiar shortcut through the middle of a residential block. It was a wide sidewalk with Victorian-style houses along both sides, their front porches within feet of the path. I remembered thinking that these homes must have been part of the urban planning movements of the early 1900's. I had no idea until reading Milwaukee Avenue: Community Renewal in Minneapolis the incredible history that this neighborhood had.

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The Chessboard and the Web by Anne-Marie Slaughter

The Chessboard and the Web by Anne-Marie Slaughter

While reading the Chessboard and the Web: strategies of connection in a networked world, it became evident just how connected the world has become. It is easy to spot the personal connections we have thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and every other social media website, but networks exist in the private sector, nonprofit groups, in social movements, and even in government agencies. The most successful enterprises are those that have realized the value of networking beyond their typical circle. 

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Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson

Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson

A friend of mine recently suggested I read Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health by Jo Robinson. I found the book fascinating and overwhelmed my husband with the facts and figures about nutritional content and history of fruits and vegetables. Anyone interested in choosing the most nutritious varieties to get the most from their meals should read this book. It has also inspired me to redesigning my garden for next spring to include a berry bush and quite possibly an apple tree (there may not be space for the tree though). 

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