Calling All Volunteers: How Urban Design Affects Community

Redesign of our cities and towns, with an eye toward promoting community and gathering among all residents

For the past two years, I've been teaching Urban Farming to home-bound senior citizens through the Virtual Senior Center, an interactive virtual classroom program set up to help senior citizens connect and engage with the community. It's truly been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. To make sure we start class in the right frame of mind, I begin each class with a gratitude practice. We each share what we are most grateful for that day, and each time, without fail, someone will share their gratitude for being alive or not being in constant pain. It really recalibrates my perspective as to what is truly important in life. Not money, fame, recognition, but what I already have in my possession — being alive, mobile, and healthy. I am genuinely humbled each time I interact with the seniors because they have so much practical wisdom to share. To say that I get more out of it than I give would be an understatement.
I'm pleased that the program has given them access to educational classes and a way to interact with peers, but the harsh reality is, they are the lucky few who found the program. In general, our society casts aside elders and retirees. Despite a political arena that is oddly dominated by septuagenarians, one hardly sees a gray head in office buildings or the bustling streets of Midtown at rush hour.
After a lifetime of dedication, hard work, and child-rearing, they have been shoved aside and largely forgotten. Many are relegated to living in sunless concrete boxes, separated from loved ones and friends alike. Gone are the grand plaza, main street, and town halls that were once common in civic design. Instead, city dwellers have burrowed into private, secluded living spaces disconnected from the people around them. In my experience, this change in design is felt hardest by senior citizens living alone. Without agency and inclusion, older people can struggle with all manner of physical and mental health issues.
This is another reason I am so passionate about sustainable development. Redesign of our cities and towns, with an eye toward promoting community and gathering among all residents, would help solve this problem. In Japan, for example, senior citizen centers are built near childcare facilities and hydroponic farms so they can volunteer and work in close proximity. Pairing seniors with adoptable pets is another way of helping two vulnerable populations at once. In these scenarios, instead of banishing older citizens, they are embraced and considered a valuable part of the community.
What can you do to ensure that our beloved city embraces older men and women? Of course, I'd highly recommend volunteering with Virtual Senior Center. It's flexible, online, and the most rewarding thing you can do with your free time. Outside of volunteering, you can always become an advocate for seniors in your neighborhood. By that, I mean keeping an eye out for how developments in your area affect people of all ages. For example, an Upper Manhattan neighborhood recently lost all elevator access in a subway entrance that was being upgraded over a 12-month period. This not only cut off access to the subway from that entrance but also closed a major pedestrian thoroughfare for seniors who used the elevators to travel through the hilly neighborhood. Thanks to community outcry from citizens of all ages, a temporary bus service was put in place to help those inconvenienced.
Let's face it, if we are lucky, each of us will be old one day. Helping seniors today is great for improving the lives of your fellow New Yorkers, and it's the perfect way to make a better city for your older self as well.

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Su doesn't see clients as mere transactions but as real human beings with real human needs. She is passionate about educating and empowering clients to make smart decisions, and as a devoted and human-centric advocate.

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