By Bob Ransford, National Post November 11, 2013 - Too often when we are planning, designing and building our cities, we fail to think about the massive demographic phenomena that is changing our lives. We need to connect the dots between the realities of a dominant aging population that is emerging in the next 30 years and the decisions we make today. Japan is currently the only country in the world with more than 30 per cent of its population aged over 60. By 2050, there will be 64 countries. There will be two billion people over 60 worldwide - a 250-per-cent increase over today. There are an estimated five million Canadians 65 years of age or older today, a number that is expected to double in the next 25 years to 10.4 million seniors by 2036. Since 1970, worldwide life expectancy has risen by around 10 years for both men and women.
The Royal Institute of British Architects recently published a report exploring some of the economic and social changes that a dominant aging population will bring for towns and cities in the next 30 years.
In the report, the institute identifies an "active Third Age" - a new demographic cohort representing active, healthy members of society approaching or beyond retirement. Members of the active Third Age are 60 to 74 and much engaged in leisure and cultural pursuits.
Unless the retirement age increases significantly, people within this cohort can expect a significant period - maybe a decade or more - between the end of their formal working lives and old age, when they may require assistance or care. These people have time, relative good health and are still keenly participating in mainstream society.
How are the lifestyles of this group shaping our communities? With increased numbers of people in this exciting phase of life - with new freedoms and new interests - what future changes are we going to see in our neighbourhoods, town and cities?
The report by the British architects laid out a number of future scenarios that paint a picture of some big changes coming to our neighbourhood, towns and cities.
For example, picture an international network of residences that could replace home ownership, allowing the Third Agers to explore the world in style and comfort. These might be mansion houses in your neighbourhood with a number of small, stylish apartments within them. The lack of personal space would be compensated for with shared and social spaces supporting the private dwellings with dining, leisure and even learning spaces used to appeal to a group of people interested in travelling more, and travelling light. Over the course of their lives, Third Agers will have disposed of many material possessions, with music, movies, photographs, books, magazines and correspondence becoming digital, rather than physical assets; therefore, they will be able to be more transient and will require less habitable space.
Another scenario sees the traditional family home reinvented to become a multi-generational dwelling capable of meeting the needs of the whole family. In a world where health care and child care is costly, this option will be a necessity for some, but provide a way of living together while maintaining some privacy. Secondary suites in the traditional single-family home and dwellings in accessory buildings like Vancouver's laneway houses are two emerging examples of this reinvention of the family home.
Imagine "health hubs" throughout the city where public space is designed to promote physical exercise. Beyond dedicated cycling lanes, look for civic infrastructure to adapt to encourage active aging and encourage activities that help with well-being. For example, heart monitoring and weighing stations might be located in strategic public areas where active seniors can send their vital stats automatically to their doctors for monitoring.
The pop-up university could arrive by 2040, allowing those with a wealth of knowledge and skill - members of a generation that had access to lessexpensive higher education - to share that knowledge with others. The city could become a living university. As a lifelong learner, you might be able to drop into a restaurant or community centre for your one-on-one lecture from your tutor.
These are just a few scenarios of what the future might look like in our neighbourhoods, towns and cities with active Third Agers - active citizens over 60 - becoming more numerous, and having a powerful voice.
These scenarios also illustrate a pressing need to plan now on how we are going to respond to this clear demographic shift. It's time to start connecting the dots between these emerging realities and the decisions we make today.