Rural “Boomers” Use Design to Support a Multi-Generational Gathering Place

Seniors who live in in rural places face a tension between a desire to age in their original homes and the challenge of accessing continued enrichment and connections to community.

However, seniors who live in the small town of Milton, Wisconsin, do not have to choose between their rural lifestyle and social opportunities.  Milton’s The Gathering Place is a non-profit, member-driven senior activity center where people gather, garden, and develop skills and passions like poetry, singing, and exercise. The Gathering Place also provides a regional visitor destination for Milton and a catalyst for other redevelopment in the area.

Recently, The Gathering Place bought an adjacent site. They asked my firm, Vandewalle & Associates, to help them develop a vision for the new site. To begin our work, we familiarized ourselves with the original vision of The Gathering Place founder Marion Allen.  Allen’s influence is prominent in the design character of indoor and outdoor spaces, from the Southern charm of the four-season porch, to the lush and rambling outdoor gardens.  Allen’s legacy is the determination and community spirit of the Board of Directors.

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A unique aspect of this project was the imperative to listen deeply to The Gathering Place’s community. To help shape the vision for the expansion, we convened focus groups with the organization’s leaders, members, and neighbors. With this input, we crafted goals that included the ability to host more programming and events, and generate public awareness and local impact.  Members, neighbors and leaders also asked for more intergenerational activities and a broader geographic reach, along with a potential for increased revenue.

The resulting Master Plan reflects these goals as well as the uniqueness of Milton and its community spirit.  It includes intergenerational spaces supported by existing and new design elements. The topography and landscape are shaped into outdoor “rooms” with hardscape elements.  These spaces will host important life celebrations like graduations, weddings, family reunions, and retirement parties. A proposed outdoor pavilion on site will accommodate larger weddings, community concerts, or enhanced classroom space for existing programs. All of these spaces will support existing programming, like exercise classes, quilting sessions, and writers’ workshops.

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The Gathering Place is building support and a creating funding strategy to implement the Master Plan.  Once realized, it will demonstrate one of many ways that effective design can support healthy aging and intergenerational interaction.

About the Author: Marta Nelson Purdy lives in Madison, Wisconsin and works for the dynamic Midwest-based consulting firm Vandewalle & Associates. Her planning passions include rebuilding cities and working with urban designers on redevelopment concepts. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a masters degree in city and regional planning in 2009.