2020/05/04 (Updated 2021/08/31)

By Daniel Buckles

Housing for an aging population

Housing for an aging population is the housing everyone else needs too. We’re not getting it, however, which is why residents from Kitchissippi Ward to Barrhaven should be paying attention to the shape of Ottawa’s new Official Plan.

Research from the University of Ottawa points out that Canada’s aging population is projected to cost billions in nursing homes, home care, and informal care. In fact, informal care provided by able bodied and able minded relatives and neighbours is likely to rise the most if we don’t redirect today’s investments in housing. Dr. Wolfson of UoO notes that this would require denser housing where people can live in walkable neighbourhoods as they age and still access services and amenities without relying on their driver’s license. This is something they can’t do living in conventional suburbs.

Young renters in the city and people with disabilities actually have a lot more in common with the aging boomers than we acknowledge, especially when it comes to housing needs and preferences. Don’t we all want to live in “15 minute neighbourhoods” where we can get groceries, visit an eatery and access greenspace by walking or riding a wheelchair on a well-maintained sidewalk? Wouldn’t it be vastly better if the young (and older) people working in service industries, including health care, actually lived nearby and walked or biked to work too? They might also make use of the integrated office spaces, kitchens and maker-spaces possible with greater density to set up their own businesses and jobs in the economy of the future.

Well designed urban density does not mean over-crowding. Higher density that brings the benefits of a healthy urban life is to everyone’s advantage. Low-rise, high efficiency buildings with many more smaller units and varied housing arrangements including co-housing and smaller collective dwellings are a more reasonable path to housing affordability than a new ring of traditional sprawling suburban houses on the outskirts of town. Denser housing that is designed for healthy, active living can be achieved in a city such as Ottawa that does not suffer widely from conditions of over-crowding facing poorer cities around the world.

Retro-fitting existing buildings with this form in mind will also help with energy costs and options for down-sizing. Mid-income couples and smaller families can benefit from more energy efficient townhouses and semis retrofitted from existing building stock. Young people, and families with lower incomes, cannot afford the suburban bungalow and probably don’t really want it anyway if a modest space near everyday amenities like shopping, public transit and greenspace is possible.

It is clear that we can no longer afford urban development that extends municipal services further out at far higher cost per dwelling, paves over wet lands, farmland and rural areas needed by future generations of young farmers, and compounds the problems of car dependency.

Denser neighbourhoods can be designed for walkability, which make them not only healthier but also more social. Walking and biking creates the possibly of chatting with neighbours on the way back from an appointment, a meeting, or a visit to the local library. A multitude of studies throughout North America shows that social isolation is the real killer for an aging population.

Housing that brings generations and diverse cultural communities together is the best antidote, and helps ensure that investments in housing today create the just, healthy and sustainable neighbourhoods of tomorrow. Ottawa’s City Officials have a chance to launch the city in this positive direction, if the Official Plan says no to urban expansion and a radically new approach to intensification brings energy efficient, walkable and greener neighbourhoods across the city.

Daniel Buckles is an Adjunct Research Professor in Anthropology at Carleton University.