James: Want a better city? Make sure it's age-friendly

Originally published in the Toronto Star on August 9th, 2010. To go to the Toronto Star please click here

Is Toronto an age-friendly city?

If everyone from age 8 to 88 feels equally safe and welcome at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor, the answer is yes.

If older residents are warehoused in seniors buildings, separated, in fact, from residents of all ages, the answer might be no.

Special transit service gets you to first base. A discount transit pass gets you to second. A Calgary-type senior’s pass that charges $100 a year compared to the TTC’s $100 a month is a resounding triple. But safe, reliable, frequent, affordable and accessible transit service gets you home.

But consider this. In a superbly integrated city where older residents feel very comfortable navigating all the services and relations needed for full citizenship, transit assumes less importance; and walking a lot more.

That’s because transit is so often built on the premise of quick travel across distance — the commute — to access jobs and services. Walking suggests ultimate accessibility.

The Canadian Association of Retired People (CARP) wants us to re-image the city, to look at it through a different set of lenses, see it from a perspective that is “mindful” of older citizens. It’s a view that promises to help everyone.

CARP takes its position to the mayoral candidates Wednesday afternoon in a debate at Ryerson University that addresses issues important in building an age-friendly city.

All five front-line candidates have promised to appear. Moderator Susan Eng, the no-nonsense lawyer who is CARP’s vice-president for advocacy promises a “civilized debate that will consist of getting answers and ending the usual political name-calling and free-for-all that sees candidates talking over each other.

“We won’t tolerate all that histrionics,” Eng said Monday as CARP released a position paper calling on the city to act now in delivering this new city.

“An age-friendly Toronto will ensure that public spaces, neighbourhoods, and buildings . . . are safe and accessible and flow with the rhythm of all residents, young and old.”

It’s a neat image — one that portrays a movement of people en masse, old and young, not a slowpoke senior bringing up the rear, holding up traffic, and progress.

The mayoral candidates are deeply interested in Wednesday’s conversation because seniors vote in greater percentages than the general population (70 per cent of those over 65 vote regularly in all elections, compared to 39 per cent of the overall population in city elections).

Census figures show there were 353,455 seniors in Toronto in 2006, some 91,000 living alone. Two in three are immigrants. Their share of the population is growing, which means they are a significant force. It’s a demographic you want to address.

The CARP-sponsored debate is part of a wider movement for age-friendly cities worldwide. (They stopped spelling out their name, sticking with the acronym, because, they say, too many of their members can no longer afford to retire).

CARP makes several recommendations.

• Help older people to retrofit their homes so they can stay there as long as they want, despite mobility or medical challenges.

• Decentralize government, social, recreational and medical services to provide greater social integration for this population. School buildings and properties are an obvious delivery vehicle.

• See transit as a second-order priority. Rather, design communities so people of all ages can walk to the places they need to go. “Start by locating recreational and social services within communities where people live rather than in commercial clusters accessible only by car or transit.”

It will be good to hear from the candidates how they might recast housing, social services, transit, the infrastructure, as well as services to foster social cohesion among residents of all ages.

© The Toronto Star

Keywords: seniors, transit