This City is Rated G

By Karina Alibhai
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

G-rated movies are family-friendly and enjoyable for all ages. But what about our cities?

According to the United Nations, the number of older persons (60+) worldwide will double from the current 600 million to 1.2 billion by 2025, and reach 2 billion by 2050. However, our environments have not been designed to accommodate this drastic demographic change. Therefore, new programs and policies are being implemented to ensure communities address the needs and capacities of the aging population.

In the last two decades, the World Health Organization (WHO) has pushed for a new standard of living that is focused on making cities age-friendly and suitable for all. The Global Age-Friendly Cities Project encourages large urban centres around the world to develop spaces that are accessible for the aging population. Thirty-three cities have taken part in this project, including four Canadian cities: Saanich (British Columbia), Portage la Prairie (Manitoba), Sherbrooke (Quebec), and Halifax (Nova Scotia).

In 2006, Saanich was chosen to be a partner city in the worldwide project. with the aim of making its urban environment more age-friendly. In particular, the city is focusing on promoting the inclusion of older persons and encouraging their participation in all areas of community life. In doing so, the city is seeking to respect their decisions and lifestyle choices and anticipate and respond flexibly to their needs and preferences.

Judy Brownoff was the Community Leader for the WHO Age Friendly Cities Project in Saanich. In a recent interview, she told me that “a city that is developed around the aging population is a city that is developed for everybody. So, whether it is a mother pushing a child in a stroller or a 2-year old learning how to walk, if you develop your community where you have parks, benches, safe walking areas, close places to sit and close walks to the store, it reaches out to neighborhoods and people and just makes for a healthier city.”

As a current Municipal Councilor for the District of Saanich and the President and Chair of BC Healthy Communities, Ms. Brownoff is an advocate for making community environments friendly for all ages. Through her role, she helps to ensure that Saanich continues to be a model for other cities, both in BC and across Canada.

All cities that participated in the initiative focused on 8 thematic areas: outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; and community support and health services. In each area, Saanich took an age-friendly outlook and implemented various community-based programs and policies.

The “Trust Me” Project, focused on intergenerational dialogue, was created to advance social connections and understanding between teens and seniors. The program began with a series of facilitated discussions about generational differences and ways to create understanding and trust between seniors and teens. The focus group then shared ideas and identified activities and projects they would like to explore.

By merging two different ages groups, the “Trust Me” Project created space for cross-generational links to develop. While seniors are often at high risk of social isolation, the program also allows teenagers to benefit from the interaction and create stronger links in their community. The age-friendly city model is advantageous since programs are not specifically focusing on one age category, but rather on creating multigenerational communities.

A major concern for older adults is mobility, and lack of access to transportation can become a significant barrier, especially in rural areas. As part of the initiative to promote an age-friendly environment in Saanich, the BCAA Traffic Safety Foundation, in cooperation with the Saanich Police, created a workshop to educate mature drivers “about the changes we go through as we age, the changes in our driving environment, and [provides] knowledge to adapt to these changes.” This proactive initiative helps seniors maintain their independence.  

Initiatives like these promote cross-generational linkages and help older adults maintain their autonomy. And as the world continues to undergo dramatic demographic shifts, cities like Saanich offer a model that others can follow with respect to including and welcoming citizens of all ages.