City is age-friendly, but for senior strollers

October 15th 2009

Susan Eng is never one to shrink in the face of a challenge. But this is one foe she never anticipated.

After battling police chief Bill McCormack and the police brass over civilian oversight and police reforms during the mid-1990s, Eng figured her latest posting would be “a gimmie.”

Eng is vice president of advocacy for CARP, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons. They recently sent out a newsletter pushing the vision of an age-friendly city, trading on a global call from the World Health Organization.

Age-friendly cities are cognizant of removing barriers to getting around. They provide public transit, public benches on almost every city block, access ramps, and good lighting that promotes safety.

Age-friendly cities don’t charge fees to seniors taking organized walks in city parks.

“I thought this was a soft sell to politicians,” said Eng. “I just never thought we would have to deal with hostile behaviour. I thought, `This is a gimmie.’ Now, we are manning the barricades again.”

CARP was quick out of the gate when a news report surfaced that a group of seniors, walking along a city trail as part of their exercise regimen – a regimen they paid someone to conduct, with the warm-up walk just one of several elements – were harassed and photographed by a city bylaw officer. He apparently wanted the organizer to pay for a city permit.

Planning a family picnic for 30 at a local park? Technically you need a permit, for a fee of course – just as you would if you were seeking to book the space exclusively for your family’s use. Go figure.

“The more we can do to encourage older Canadians to get out there and feel safe in public space, take ownership of public space with minimal interference to other users – this is precisely the communal use that the parks are meant for,” Eng says.

The fees policy “has to be stopped in its tracks and the mayor has to say out loud what the values are here,” she says. “Permits for camping, yes; calisthenics, no.”

Now, theoretically, a group of seniors meeting at a park for tai chi or jumping jacks is subject to the permit philosophy – if citizens are lining up for the same space. Residents understand that, hence, wedding picture permits and soccer field permits.

But a stroll in the park? A walk along a trail?

Apparently, the city is concerned about the use of public space for commercial activity. It wants a piece of the action, as it were. But with the seniors’ lobby so strong, the mayor, ward councillor and parks committee have all called for a bylaw review while urging “flexibility and discretion” by enforcers.

Eng rejects the discretion argument. Or a waiving of the permit requirement, as Councillor Mark Grimes has suggested. She wants, as a matter of principle, free and unfettered use of city parks – except for obvious commercial uses such as a hot dog stand.

There is no need for a waiver. Once you have to depend on a bylaw officer’s charity, it reinforces that there is a limitation on what should be free usage, Eng says. City hall is looking to tweak the bylaw. Seniors want it scrapped.