Two-thirds of Canadians live in the suburbs, but the car-dependent neighbourhoods are “no place to grow old,” says Glenn Miller, a senior associate at the Canadian Urban Institute.
As the population ages and the life expectancy of Canadians increases, there’s a lot of discussion about where older people are going to live and how to make their communities more age-friendly.
The baby boom generation is moving into their senior years, but most of them are not yet interested in downsizing to condominiums or moving from their current homes. In fact, they are still actively purchasing move-up homes and recreational properties.
But Statistics Canada says that as the boomers age, beginning in 2031 the share of the population aged 85 and older will increase rapidly. Almost one in four seniors in Canada will be 85 or older by 2051.
That’s going to put a lot of pressure on seniors’ residences and long-term care facilities. Currently about a third of those aged 85 and older lives in these types of residence.
Most seniors want to stay in their own homes for as long as they are physically and financially able to do so, but some homes and communities make that easier than others.
About two-thirds of Canadians live in suburban areas, built after the Second World War and filled with young families who enjoyed their single-family houses and roomy backyards. But if you live in the suburbs, you likely need a car to get to local amenities such as grocery stores, medical services or community centres.
A report by Glen Miller for the Institute for Research on Public Policy says that by 2036, 42 per cent of residents aged 75 and older will no longer have a driver’s licence, according to estimates by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.
Citing research by the Canadian Urban Institute (CIU), Miller says, “As the design of subdivisions changed, the average size of single-detached dwellings increased from 850 square feet in the 1950s, to 2,000 square feet in the 1970s, to 2,000 to 3,000 square feet in the 1990s, to 3,500 square feet today, even though average household size has declined. The result is that many neighbourhoods lack the critical mass of population to support local services and amenities. Instead, residents of newer subdivisions rely on power centres or shopping malls accessible by car.”
Miller says, “It’s fair to say that our current suburbs are no place to grow old.”
Without the ability to drive themselves because of physical or financial limitations, seniors can quickly become isolated in their communities. The problem has been recognized by municipalities for many years, Miller says, and in 2007 the concept of age-friendly communities (AFC) was introduced by the World Health Organization.
“More than 500 municipalities have since committed to becoming age-friendly,” writes Miller. “Despite the original enthusiasm, however, the AFC movement has led only to minor physical improvements, such as the addition of park benches, better lighting or clearer signage, and it has thus far failed to generate the scale of public policy intervention needed to bring about significant changes to the built environment.”
He says in most municipalities, the planning department doesn’t take AFC into consideration. A study by the CIU of 25 cities that committed to becoming age friendly found that none of them have incorporated the idea into their official plans. None of them modified their approvals process to reflect AFC goals or put the aging population as a priority when planning development.
Miller notes that the government’s health care policies support healthy aging and aging at home. “In order to capture the imagination of the older adults who stand to benefit from age-friendly development practices, municipal planners and their developer colleagues need to seek out and deliver compelling examples of age-friendly development that will benefit people, and customers, of all ages.”
He provides some recent examples of AFC. In Port Credit, part of the City of Mississauga, Ont., a brownfield site that was once the St. Lawrence Starch factory has been developed into a mixed-use community over 15 years. First townhomes and mid-rise condos were constructed, along with retail and other amenities on the ground floor. Then a retirement residence was added. The development is within walking distance of the commuter rail station.
Most of the buyers relocated to the development from low-density suburbs in the area, and the neighbourhood has seen the average age of the population increase as they transition from townhouse to mid-rise to the retirement residence.
Another example is in Don Mills, Ont., which was touted as Canada’s first car-oriented suburban subdivision. A local plaza was turned into an indoor mall but later it was redeveloped with mid-rise condominiums and a new plaza with open community spaces.
Existing suburbs are a tougher challenge, but Miller points to two examples of streets near suburban areas that have become community hubs. Broadway, in the Kitsilano suburb of Vancouver, and a North Toronto neighbourhood around Yonge Street both have several mixed-used mid-rise developments.
“Although not explicitly planned as age-friendly projects, both focus on creating a high-quality public realm through zoning that encourages a mix of community-oriented uses and street grids that facilitate walking and easy access to public transit,” says Miller. “These two community hubs have proven attractive to empty nesters as well as young families who can afford to rent or own condos.”