My 78-year-old neighbour Rosa holds court on her front porch every evening with a few of her equally aged friends. They yak in Italian, greet passersby and berate me for not watering my flowers. I think of them as the neighbourhood mayor and council.

 

When the evening “meeting” breaks up, Rosa goes inside, Theresa walks a block and a half home, Lucia goes to her house three doors down and Maria limps around the corner to her place.

 

These women live a good life in our downtown neighbourhood. None of them drive, but there are three drug stores, three butchers, myriad greengrocers, a shoemaker, a half-dozen hairdressers, dentists, lawyers, a doctor’s office, a church, a post office, a hardware store and a subway stop within a few short blocks of home.

 

Statistics Canada predicts there will soon be a lot more seniors like Rosa and her friends. The number of people 65 and older is expected to nearly double to between 9.9 million and 10.9 million by 2036, up from 4.7 million in 2009.


With 60 per cent of seniors living in communities of more than 100,000, the aging population poses a significant challenge for cities. Simply getting around, for instance, will be a growing problem for the surburban elderly who can no longer drive.


Research suggests that inadequate transit, the lack of nearby amenities and an environment hostile to pedestrians means seniors living in sprawling developments take fewer trips each week than those living in denser, downtown neighbourhoods. They are less likely to leave their homes on any given day. What’s more, traffic lights that change too quickly and streets that are too wide make walking a dangerous endeavour: In 2001, there were 3.7 pedestrian fatalities per 1,000 population among those 65 and older — the highest rate for any age group in Canada.


Cities are hostile places for the elderly in other ways. They lack public toilets. There are too few places to sit and rest. Rough sidewalks make it easy to trip.


Having said all that, there is hope. The first of the baby boomers turns 65 next year and by 2031, they will all be 65 or older. This is a demographic that gets what it wants and if boomers demand better transit, safer intersections, more public toilets and more places to sit — well it just might happen. And that means better cities for people of all ages.


– April Lindgren teaches at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, where she specializes in local news and urban affairs reporting; april.lindgren@arts.ryerson.ca.