Urban Design for an Aging Population

UniverCity strives to be suitable for residents of all ages and abilities.

In 2030 one in four Canadians will be over 65. Urban planners must act now to create livable, accessible communities to meet demand

If you sprained your ankle—so badly that you couldn’t drive—could you still get to work, conveniently and affordably? Could you hobble safely to a grocery store on your new crutches? Could you get as far as the pharmacy to fill a prescription for painkillers? These are thoughts we don’t want to think. But old age is coming for us all, so it’s prudent to consider whether our living conditions will still work for us when our bodies stop working quite so well. 

This question is of particular interest to planners and real estate professionals. As baby boomers move toward retirement, we have to recognize that, by 2030, 25 per cent of Canadians will be over 65. One person in 14 was a “senior” in 1961; in 17 years, it will be one in four.

That’s the “bad” news. The good news is that redesigning communities to accommodate aging residents will improve livability for everyone. In reality it doesn’t matter if you are pushing a walker or a stroller: when you get to a staircase you’re just as stuck.

Designing for an aging population is all about removing barriers and reducing friction. Are doors hard to open? Are grades too steep? Are the paths or pavements too rough for wheelchairs (or too treacherous for toddlers)? Is there a store nearby—or even a bus stop? If you live in a typical suburb—the 1950s image of convenience for those who are old enough, or still young enough, to drive a car—you might get all the wrong answers.

Sparse suburban subdivisions are expensive to service, and often openly hostile to pedestrians, with few sidewalks or footpaths. It’s also hard to maintain a sense of community when the kids move away, so older people wind up living lonely lives in homes that were designed to accommodate thriving families, not aging, isolated couples or solitary survivors.

The alternative is to build or re-engineer communities that put people close to the things they need and want. It’s what has been done at UniverCity, the community beside Simon Fraser University’s once-isolated campus on Burnaby Mountain.

First, the green space that was need to maintain a healthy environment was set aside: 320 hectares were permanently transferred to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area in return for permission to concentrate development in a convenient, walkable, 65-hectare bloc next to SFU. Essential services were built: a grocery store, a pharmacy, an elementary school and a childcare centre that is being hailed as the greenest on the planet. Fabulous transit service and a nearby employer were already in place.

The key is to think about the future—to build homes and neighbourhoods that will continue to work, even when we’ve stopped. Our experience at UniverCity suggests that if you build a community that is accessible, safe and supportive when residents grow old, no one complains if it is also pleasant and convenient in the meantime.


Gordon Harris is president and CEO of the SFU Community Trust, which is the organization charged with building a model sustainable community on SFU’s endowment lands on Burnaby Mountain.