The Green Scene: Aging In Place, Sustainably

Think of it as the greening of aging. The fourth annual Mountain Green Sustainable Communities Conference will bring together building-industry professionals, educators and others interested in exploring best practices in sustainable and green construction, development, planning and design. The event, a project of Warren Wilson College's Environmental Leadership Center, will happen Wednesday, June 23, on the campus in Swannanoa.

Free bird: Every year, the Carolina Raptor Center releases a rehabbed bird of prey at the Mountain Green Sustainability Conference at Warren Wilson College. Photo courtesy WWC

"Each year, we want to provide a new audience with information about how to have less impact on the environment," says Phillip Gibson, the center's director of research and community outreach. "This year, our focus is long-term care and the 'aging-in-place' sectors — the gerontological community, if you will. Our speakers bring international knowledge and new interest to some long-standing issues. What's a truly livable community? How can folks age in place, stay near friends and family, live life to the fullest? It turns out that what's good for seniors is good for everyone."

A conference headliner, Dr. Bill Thomas, offers a refreshing yet common-sense perspective that's revolutionizing what long-term-care facilities can be. As a nursing-home director in upstate New York in the mid-'90s, Thomas moved dogs, cats, birds and plants into his facility, radically shifting the focus from delivering scheduled institutional care to nurturing residents' dignity and emotional well-being. Dubbed the Eden Alternative, the project was warmly received, leading Thomas to create a nonprofit that now boasts 300 "Eden home conversions" in the U.S. and an additional 200 abroad.

Another featured speaker, consultant Barry Patterson, is known for integrating bio-inspired design and process into his clients' projects. Patterson helps designers, engineers, architects and business leaders solve challenges while advancing sustainability. The idea is that life on Earth has been a continuing series of experiments for some 3.8 billion years. And whatever the design problem, chances are that one or more of the world's millions of species have not only faced the same challenge but has evolved effective strategies to solve it.

Breakout sessions will spotlight people like Kathryn Lawler, external affairs manager for the Atlanta Regional Commission, whose specialty is aging in place. Her husband, Scott Ball of the architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., will lead a session on designing sustainable home and long-term-care environments.

Conference participants will enjoy a lunch featuring locally raised foods, plus an evening reception with free beer from Pisgah Brewing Co. Fifty vendors will display a wide variety of products and processes for sustainable homes and businesses.

And once again this year, a bird of prey that's been in the care of the Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville, N.C., will be released into the wild.

Primary sponsors include the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, AdvantageWest and attorney Robert J. Deutsch. Land of Sky has been involved in planning for livable local communities for years, but the aging component is new, notes Gibson.

The conference is continuing its ongoing mission: helping define what the catchall term "sustainability" means in practice. "We claim to live sustainably if we can harvest or extract the earth's resources without depleting or permanently damaging them," says Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor of Natural Home magazine, who'll lead another breakout session. "By that standard, no one in a country that devours coal, oil and water — and uses up a quarter of the earth's resources — can live sustainably. Our collective footprint is just too huge."

"According to green marketers, 10 percent of the U.S. population believes we will always have enough resources," she notes. "Twenty percent are very sincerely trying to minimize their massive American footprints, but their reducing-and-recycling efforts are futile if they can't convince the other 70 percent that sustainable living is a better way. Recent events, from the BP oil spill to the banking meltdown, have begun to tip the balance. Change happens. Sustainable living in America is an attainable dream."

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