Why our current suburbs are no place to grow old

Glenn Miller 20 avril 2017
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For many of us, Canada’s centenary celebrations seem like they happened yesterday. How did 50 years go by so quickly? As we prepare for our 150th anniversary, the demographic reality is that there are now more seniors than school-aged children in our population. Twenty-five years from now, one-quarter of us will be collecting old age security.

Although this has predictable implications for the economy and health care costs, we face another challenge: for decades we have been building car-dependent suburbs where residents have to drive or be driven to work, school or shopping. This worked well for growing families, but as people age and become less mobile, many lose the ability to drive or afford a car. When grocery stores, medical facilities and community centres are too far away to reach on foot, seniors without a car become less active and are at risk of becoming isolated. Forecasts suggest that by 2036, more than 40 per cent of people living in car-dependent suburbs surrounding Toronto will no longer have a driver’s licence.

What can be done to solve this problem? The good news is that hundreds of Canadian municipalities have signed on to become “age-friendly,” a concept introduced in Canada as a World Health Organization pilot a decade ago. In Ontario, nearly all of the province’s largest cities have declared their intention to become age-friendly. Some, such as Ottawa, Toronto, London and Hamilton, with support from the Ontario Seniors Secretariat (now the Ministry of Seniors Affairs), have already earned the WHO’s coveted age-friendly designation. But this recognition is renewable every three years and entails more than the relatively minor improvements (such as more park benches, better lighting and signage) we have seen so far. Cities can’t rest on their laurels.

One of the critical areas for improvement is to make the connection between “age-friendly” and land-use planning. Research by the Canadian Urban Institute finds that none of the larger Ontario cities pursuing the path to become age friendly has yet taken the basic step of amending its official plans to reflect that commitment.

Research confirms that most of us want to age at home, in familiar surroundings, where we have friends and know our neighbours. But unless there are “push factors” such as ill health, or “pull factors” such as the desire to move to more vibrant surroundings, most of us stay put. This inertia is exacerbated in low-density suburbs filled with single detached housing because these places offer few housing options for anyone looking to move.

In a publication just released by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, I detail the following opportunities:

  • Ontario is already making important changes to how planning and development occurs. Amending provincial policies to make age-friendly planning a municipal priority would provide additional incentives for cities and developers to create compact, walkable development; complement existing commitments to age-friendly communities; and support provincial efforts to help people age at home. “Strong” communities can also be age-friendly communities.
  • Municipal official plans have to be updated on a regular basis. Acknowledging the impact of demographic change by integrating the notion of age-friendly design into these plans and the development review process would create a powerful additional incentive for rethinking development patterns. An age-friendly philosophy could also enhance broader goals for improving urban design, neighbourhood walkability and access to essential amenities, including public transit.
  • The current generation of seniors has grown up with unprecedented mobility thanks to ubiquitous car-ownership. With people living longer – and for the most part, healthier than in the past – forecasts suggest that most of us will outlive our ability to drive. There is an opportunity for municipalities and developers to collaborate in seeking out redevelopment sites such as suburban strip plazas, failed malls and other brownfields to create mixed use projects that offer easy access to age-appropriate housing and amenities.

A British gerontologist once stated, “Design for the young and you exclude the old; design for the old and you include everybody.” There are many reasons to build on the progress being made to create age-friendly communities. Preserving quality of life for seniors living in Canada’s suburbs seems like a good place to start.


Glenn Miller is a senior associate with the Canadian Urban Institute in Toronto. In addition to leading the CUI’s research on aging issues, he is a member of the City of Toronto’s Seniors Accountability Table.