Calgary’s University District will be ready for the coming wave of seniors
Calgary may be the youngest of Canada’s major cities, but it won’t be for long. So it needs to take steps now that will ensure the city remains livable for an aging population.
“Calgary is a relatively young city compared to other Canadian cities, but seniors are the city’s fastest growing demographic,” said Peggy Edwards, an Ottawa-based health promotion consultant, policy analyst and writer who specializes in aging. “It’s going to double in the next 20 years.”
“Those people are looking for connected neighbourhoods and affordable housing. Many of them, even if they want to stay in their homes, are prepared to move into the inner city or a neighbourhood development where they can walk and access facilities and, in a lot of cases, can be closer to their children and their grandchildren.”
One of those future neighbourhoods might be in University District located east of Shaganappi Trail between 16th and 32nd Avenues N.W. That 200-acre piece of land is being developed for the University of Calgary by West Campus Development Trust and the future needs of an aging population are very much part of their plans.
“We’ll have more than double the number of seniors in this province over the lifetime of this project,” said James Robertson, President and CEO of the Trust, who noted the land should be fully developed by 2031. It will eventually be home to 15,000 people. By the time they are done the number of seniors in Alberta is forecast by Statistics Canada to rise from today’s 400,000 to more than 900,000.
“It would be irresponsible of us to not factor that into our thoughts and our plans as we move forward,” Robertson said. “When we start talking about a seniors population of this significance, we have a moral and ethical obligation to create community that responds to their needs.
“It’s important to make sure that we’re responding to that need and to make sure that we’re creating communities that people can live in for generations and they don’t feel that they have to leave just because they’re at a different life stage.”
Robertson says one of key ways they plan to make this district attractive to older residents is to make it walkable and ensure that services are easily accessible for someone without a car.
“We have a main street called University Avenue that will have a coffee shop, a bank, a grocery store, a pharmacy, all the elements you need for day to day living and it’s two blocks from our seniors facility, but it’s also walkable from any of our other developments,” he said. “You can live here. You don’t need to leave this community for your day-to-day needs. You can get everything you want and it’s all within walking distance.”
Edwards, who is the keynote speaker at the Walk21 Calgary Conference this September, agreed that walkability and public transit are important considerations for seniors.
“This is a particular problem in the suburbs,” she said. “We built these communities that are totally dependent on cars and driving, but as you get older you may lose your ability to drive or ability to afford a car so you’re stuck. How do you get to services? How do you get anywhere unless there is really good public transportation or you can walk to them.”
Edwards noted that when designing walkable communities, it’s important to take safety into consideration.
“There are some real safety issues in the community around walkability,” she said. “Some of them sound simple, but they’re not. For example, the length of time for a crossing at intersection. It can be too short for an older person who’s slow or has a cane. They can’t get across that intersection and that’s where the most accidental deaths appear with older people.”
Cold weather is another factor that Edwards thinks needs more attention.
“We often overlook the challenge of winter,” she said. “Let’s face it, we’re winter cities. People often only do walking audits and safety audits in the good weather. You do them in winter and you really find how difficult it is for older people to get around with icy sidewalks.”
“This is a huge problem with older people who are afraid of falling so they don’t go out. In the worst case, they are isolated in their homes and they can’t get out for days.”
When talking about seniors, it’s important to remember that they are not one homogenous group.
“Our increased longevity and the aging of the Baby Boomers are changing our understanding of what it means to be a senior,” said Raynell McDonough, an issue strategist with the City of Calgary who is involved with the city’s Age-Friendly Calgary Initiative.
“We’re seeing a generation who may resist the label of senior. Right now, they’re up to 71 or 72 and may not relate to terms like senior or older adult or older person and may be living a lifestyle that is quite similar to what they did as a younger adult or middle-aged person.”
McDonough said that longevity coupled with continued engagement is good for the community.
“When people reach age 65, often we’re expecting to live an extra 20, 30 or 35 years of our life and people are asking themselves ‘what am I going to do with that time?’,” she said. “That pushes people toward a greater sense of engagement and a greater sense of activity in the community. People aren’t done. You don’t reach 65 and decide to retire from life. Even if someone is retired from work, lots of them are still contributing.”
Edwards, who is 71 and still working, agreed and thinks that the young and old have more in common than we think.
“Boomers have a lot in common with younger people. Fewer of us have cars; we want to be more active; we want better transportation; we want walkable neighbourhoods. I think young people and older people are in tune on that,” she said.
She also thinks that society benefits when young and old are in contact with each other on a daily basis in neighbourhoods like University District.
“I think young people, especially children, and older people really benefit when they live together and close by and intergenerational activities are good for everybody. They’re good for your soul; they’re good for your mind and they’re good for your spirit.”
Robertson emphasized that while there was much planning into the future needs of the aging segment of Calgary’s population during the design of the University District, it is very much an intergenerational neighbourhood and will cater to people at all life stages.
“What we try to do is to build a community that accommodates different lifestyles, but more importantly, different elements of people’s lifestyles,” he said. “The city we live in was built by these people we’re calling seniors. It’s important as we grow old, there’s a place for them in our community.”