Planning for an Older Population

Posted by Brandon Copeland

Senior in the City.jpg

I’ve been doing some exciting work recently, and part of the role has me learning as much as I can about Newfoundland demographic trends. In particular, I am exploring how our aging population, as well as in-migration, is going to impact where and how people live in our province. The Harris Centre report, which was released last year amidst a lot of conversation, does a great job of shining a light on where we are headed. Newsflash! The results of their study may be perceived as a little scary.

The crux of our challenge is quite simple. People of child-bearing age (largely, millennials) are having fewer children, if they are having children at all. Meanwhile, our most populous generation (the good old baby-boomers) are reaching retirement age. The first baby boomers to cross the 65+ mark occurred in 2011. We are now six years in. Over the next decade, we will reach a point where the MAJORITY of the boomers find themselves no longer working.

So this means we are faced with a population across the country that is trending upward in average age. Not enough babies are being born to off-set retirees. With national trends in and around urbanism, this problem is even more noticeable in rural areas, which comprise the majority of Atlantic Canada. The result in Newfoundland and Labrador is a shocking one – by 2036 almost 30% of the province’s population will be retired. Let’s say that again. Forecasts suggest that in 2036, 151,593 of the province’s 506,306 people will be seniors aged 65+.

I’m not going to dive into what this will mean for pension funds, or our hospital bills, or our University’s nursing program. What I am curious about, as someone with an interest in real estate and urban issues, is how we may adapt our built environment to address these changing needs. Put your Futurology hat on for a moment – this will be fun!

 Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars are cool tech. I like sitting behind the wheel and cruising down the highway as much as anyone, but I also recognize the benefits that self-driving cars can bring a population. For me, who will likely end up working in them, it is an increase in productivity. However for seniors, who tend to find it increasingly difficult to drive as they age, self-driving cars represent freedom. They represent maintaining some level of mobility. They represent connectedness.

I suspect that self-driving cars will transition from being a luxury item to being what our cities’ transportation networks are designed around. This will take some time, of course, but a fleet of self-driving vehicles replacing buses would mean more customized trips and likely increased ridership. Some may suggest that my vision is a little too futuristic, however when faced with our aging population (and considering where the tech currently stands) self-driving cars may be a solution to help aging demographics stay mobile sooner than we think.

Density for Mobility

Self-driving cars are in no way the only solution to helping seniors navigate our cities. Another of the most easily implementable methods to improve our ability to move around neighbourhoods is density. Density in St. John’s is sporadic – we have incredibly dense areas like the downtown, but then very sparse and poorly laid out areas like our commercial hubs, or our newer subdivision. The reality is that the denser an area is, the cheaper it is to maintain the infrastructure on a per person basis. In regard to the topic at hand, density can allow for more walkable, self-contained communities if built correctly. I suspect that denser, mixed-use communities will become far more common (if not outright mandated) in the coming years to help with our challenges.

 Creative Zoning

The last thing I’ll mention is that I suspect zoning will become more creative, and some of our backyards may become mom and dad’s front yards. As seniors begin looking to downsize, our severe lack of “small home” stock will become an issue. Let’s face it – we have an abundance of 2 storey, 3 bedroom homes around the city (particularly in our newer subdivisions). What we lack is single storey “micro” homes; buildings that have all the essentials but aren’t an upkeep nightmare. “In-law suites” will become more common, and backyards may become hot real estate. Additionally, neat pieces of land in some of our built-up neighbourhoods may provide opportunity for some creative small homes. Check out THIS example, and think about where we could implement this near you.

Let’s face it, Newfoundland and Labrador is getting older. We are going to have less money for infrastructure investment, yet we need to upgrade to solutions that can assist and support a less mobile population. This isn’t something solved by building more condos on the outskirts – we need to look at how we are planning our neighbourhoods and ensure we are adapting.