The Other Side of Anxiety? Realism. And maybe hope.

When the dust settles after the current traumas, I think we’ll see this time in our lives and in our nation’s history as a period in which what we’ve learned about human psychology, democracy and policy-making at every scale has exposed weaknesses in ourselves and our institutions that will take a while to fix. And that could be a good thing.

We’re wired to seek simple solutions, even when evidence suggests hairballs of complexity. And the more stressed we are, the faster we default to The Answer. Evolution encourages us to be hammers in search of nails. Needless to say, this has not always worked well for us. (See racism, genocide, xenophobia, etc. Also Urban Renewal and the 2016 presidential election.)

In a previous post, I suggested one problem with too narrowly defining The Problem:

Take, for instance, the community affordability debates. There’s insistence on one side to use government’s regulatory powers to limit development for rich people and increase it for poorer populations. That’s nostalgia for an imaginary America before corporations conspired against the People. On the other side are those arguing that, unfettered from growth-stunting restrictions, the free market will fill most of the gaps. Just as the Invisible Hand provided for all in the Good ‘Ol Days, regardless of resources, race, gender, ethnicity, etc. 

It takes about 20 minutes on Google to find all the examples you need of cities and regions that have tried a bunch of variations on keep-it-simple solutions and failed to make a dent in the problems. Even minor progress on affordability issues requires acknowledging bundles of complexity and the need to combine strategies – and, in more cases than we’re apt to admit, the necessity to suffer inconvenience, if not pain.

I got a reminder recently of “the need to combine strategies” when I sat in on some discussions about addressing senior housing needs. Since I’m a Baby Boomer, born in the first wave of the boom, I have a personal interest in where the heck we’re going with aging issues. So I was curious about the discussion among those who’ve latched on to one answer: the elders-helping-elders approach born out of the Beacon Hill Village idea in Boston some 15 years ago.

Beacon Hill. Image credit: Ian Howard, http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Beacon Hill. Image credit: Ian Howard, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, there’s a national organization, the Village-to-Village Network, and affiliate organizations in 45 states. The idea is a good one – forge communities of volunteers among seniors to help one another with simple, occasional tasks like transportation and tasks around the house. The networks build a sense of community and reduce isolation in aging households and make it a little easier to age in place, which is the goal of most seniors.

I like that the seniors organizing these networks have a more comprehensive vision than most strategies for elder care. To their credit, they’re clear about the rewards of community building, which they celebrate maybe even more than the practical services of changing lightbulbs and driving folks to the grocery store. But organizers I listened to were also honest about the challenges of doing all this in suburban environments, where the distances between homes and service destinations complicated volunteer logistics and frustrated the goals of preventing isolation.

What they’d likely admit is that what we have here is a promising bridge to solutions for an aging population but not The Answer. Everything that makes it harder for the village movement to serve a significant segment of that slice of demography also makes it harder to build and sustain healthy communities for the broader population. Sprawled out across the landscape, segregated by class and income, dependent upon private automobiles for just about every daily task, we’ve created obstacles for achieving most of what we tell ourselves are the most important things in our lives: happiness, purpose, opportunity, connections with others. And nowhere does that become more apparent than when we grow old.

No single, simple solution will rise to the challenge of complexity. Only comprehensive strategies – well-thought-out and well-tested approaches that are comprehensive and complementary – will get us where we want to go. When it comes to the built environment, the combo includes examples we’ve discussed before:

Scale up affordable housing programs mightily. Change zoning to guide development that delivers broad choice and opportunity instead of weaponizing it to block change. Go big on mass transit of all types, and subsidize it to make it an affordable, viable option for the most number of people.

The good news is those sorts of approaches are likely to deliver the goods not only for the worried folks in my aging generation, but for generations to come.

Ben Brown

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