KEENE, N.H. — To help develop a plan to address the age-related questions, the Southwest Region Planning Commission is conducting a region-wide community assessment in partnership with Cheshire Medical Center.
The Southwest New Hampshire Age-Focused Planning Initiative is an effort to collect information and develop a report on the region's ability to serve and accommodate residents of all ages.
The SWRPC is one of nine regional planning commissions in New Hampshire, covering 34 towns in Cheshire, Hillsborough and Sullivan counties.
Each of those towns has its own unique needs but two very important issues cut across town lines — an increase in the region's median age and an exodus of younger people.
"Having these two needs on the spectrum makes us realize in order to keep a vibrant community, we need to pay attention to both," said Lisa Murphy, a senior planner with SWRPC.
Each of the 34 towns will receive individual assessments based on replies to an online survey and a review of their master plans and ordinances, Murphy said.
"The information collected will help us understand current conditions along with the wants and needs of residents of all age groups," she said.
The age-focused planning study will be conducted through 2020 and is meant to better understand the needs and wants of all ages regarding housing, transportation, employment, social engagement and civic participation.
In southwest New Hampshire, the proportion of the population that is 65 and older is growing faster than any other age group, while the total population is showing little to no growth. By 2040, this age group is expected to grow to 26 percent of the region's total population. And while 80 percent of the towns in the region exceed the Granite State's median age, the number of children under 15 decreased by 14 percent between 2000 and 2010.
The SWRPC hopes to develop strategies for the region and each of the towns to "a healthy balance of age," according to its website.
Since many of the region's towns do not have the data or staff to conduct the review, the SWRPC is doing the legwork.
"The younger generation supports the aging population," said Murphy. "We do need to pay attention to the aging population because they have certain needs such as housing, services and transportation. At the same time, we need to look at the wants and needs of people leaving the region. How do we address those needs so that we don't continue to see an increase in those leaving?"
Especially on the minds of those in all age groups, said Murphy, is affordable housing. Members of the aging demographic might need to have community housing that includes
supportive services and offers access to transportation alternatives, such as bus lines. While Keene has both, very few of the outlying towns do.
"Will those towns be able to provide the infrastructure that is needed?" asked Murphy. While the SWRPC can't answer that question for each town, she said, the commission will provide data to the towns so they can make their own decisions on how best to proceed.
"On the other end of the spectrum, employers are having difficulty filling jobs," she said. "People who are being recruited can't find housing that meets their needs within the offered income range."
Mixed-use community housing open to all ages could relieve some of this pressure, said Murphy. But the cost of single-family homes in the region can be prohibitive, meaning new home buyers may not be able to find something that fits their income level.
In addition to the online survey, the SWRPC is also conducting forums around the region to take direct input from people.
Murphy also hopes that more people 55 and younger respond to the survey.
"Sixty-seven percent of the respondents so far have been 55 and older," she said. "We'd like to see a bit more from the younger population."
This initiative is funded through a grant from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation and administered by Cheshire Medical Center.
The Southwest Region Planning Commission provides local assistance on planning issuesthat can come in the form of community master planning, site plan review, capital improvement planning, subdivision reviews, ordinance preparation, interpretation of state and local planning requirements, grant administration, cartographic support and geographic information system applications.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.