Recent analysis of how Canadian suburbs accommodate aging residents concludes that the streetscapes, housing mix and array of neighbourhood services and amenities typically fail to meet seniors’ needs. Although many municipal governments have endorsed the World Health Organization’s concept of age-friendly communities, a new report, published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), suggests that approach has resulted in fragmented strategies rather than coordinated goals, budgets and results.
“It is fair to say that our current suburbs are no place to grow old,” asserts Glenn Miller, the report’s author and a senior associate with the Canadian Urban Institute. “The work being carried out to make communities more age-friendly is still removed from the formal planning and development processes that determine the physical form of urban and suburban neighbourhoods.”
Other agendas, such as smart growth and universal design for barrier-free accessibility, have been integrated more successfully into development criteria from overarching building codes and Official Plans down to site plans — in part, Miller maintains, because they can be enacted through clear measures that fall within the scope of planners’ responsibilities and control. In contrast, age-friendly communities (AFC) are defined in a more sweeping way, including social service deliverables like health care and intangibles like respect and inclusion.
Even the elements specifically pertaining to the built environment — outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; and housing — require a broader base of champions on the budgeting and decision-making fronts. “The AFC built-environment domains blend capital items (for example, investments in low-floor buses) with operating service standards (such as the cleanliness of public toilets), which undermines the importance of the message,” Miller observes.
He calls for principles and guidelines embedded in the planning and development approvals process, beginning with provincial government directives such as Ontario’s Provincial Policy Statement governing land use planning and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. At the municipal level, his survey reveals that none of the 25 Ontario cities that have signed on to the age-friendly communities concept have followed through with commitments in their Official Plans.
“Amending the vision and strategy sections of official plans to acknowledge the impact of demographic change would create an additional, powerful impetus for rethinking development patterns with an emphasis on reurbanization over outward expansion,” Miller urges. “The AFC lens would reinforce citywide goals for urban design, neighbourhood walkability, and proximity to community services, amenities and public transit.”
Without active intervention, development trends suggest an even bleaker future. The density of many new subdivisions has declined since the 1970s, when newly constructed single detached homes were commonly 1,500 to 2,000 square feet in size, to today’s average of 3,500 square feet. This could make suburbs increasingly inhospitable for residents who no longer drive.