Opening up the age-friendly debate

How do cities respond to an aging population? How must services, housing, and infrastructure change? What new designs and facilities will be required? As the population ages, these questions are becoming more urgent — and voters are becoming more vocal in demanding answers from political leaders.

Toronto has a Mayoral election on October 25 – and on August 11 CARP sponsored a debate in which the mayoral candidates presented their ideas. The questions — and the candidates’ answers — reflect a new policy dialogue that will play out in cities across Canada. Here’s a closer look at what’s at stake, what new ideas are in play, and how they might be implemented.

In Age-friendly cities and communities, we discussed what a city needs to be happy and healthy for people of all ages — but knowing it and actually doing it (not to mention paying for it) are very different things. So how can we go from ideas to action — and who will foot the bill?

The changing face of our cities

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Age-friendly Cities: A Guide, the proportion of the world’s population aged 60 and over will double – from 11 per cent in 2006 to 22 per cent by 2050.

This has particular impact on cities, because more and more older adults are moving to urban centres. In Canada, nearly 70 per cent of people over 65 live in urban centers, according to a recent CARP report, The Case for an Age-Friendly Toronto.

But “age friendly” can mean more than just meeting the needs of older residents. There are positive effects on all ages: Everyone benefits from things like safer streets, more convenient access to facilities, affordable housing, and more green spaces. There are also economic benefits: The local economy is stronger when older adults can stay active and involved, and health care costs can be reduced. In short, the “age friendly” topic has wide implications — and doing it right has multiple benefits.

Toronto: A model city?

While Toronto is larger than any other city in Canada, and has some unique issues, it can serve as a model of the kinds of challenges all other Canadian cities will face — aging residents accounting for a higher percentage of the total population; a need to redesign and rebuild aging infrastructure; a need for better access to services and facilities. Although the specifics may differ, the debate now going on in Toronto is sure to be repeated elsewhere.

Toronto’s population is estimated at 2.7 million, and 40 per cent (about 1.1 million) are over the age of 45. Of these, about a third (370,000 people, or 14 per cent of the total population) are over 65 — and that number is expected to rise steadily. By 2031, almost one Torontonian in five will be over 65, and the number of people over 85 will be almost double what it was in 2001.

Toronto is also Canada’s most multicultural city. The majority of Toronto’s seniors are immigrants — 30 per cent of them recent ones — who also face additional challenges like cultural and communications barriers as well as isolation. “Age friendly” must therefore mean more than just physical features — it must include better understanding of social, ethnic and cultural sensitivities, and better channels of communication.

Top issues to tackle

CARP has set out t hree guiding principles key to making Toronto a model age-friendly city. These principles could apply to every civic administration:

1. Age-mindful Governance (political will and civic values)

The municipal leadership must govern with age-mindfulness — viewing all facets of city life from the perspective of citizens spanning the age spectrum.

2. Universally Accessible Built Form (public spaces and buildings)

Every aspect of the built environment, from streets and walkways, parks and buildings to neigbhourhoods and communities, must be made universally accessible to all citizens, regardless of age.

3. Universal Mobility in the Public Space (transit, co-located services, and community hubs)

There must be universal mobility for all citizens regardless of age, with tools like accessible and affordable public transit to ‘walkable’ neighbourhoods.

(*Source: The Case for an Age-Friendly Toronto .)

CARP also urges the appointment of an “Age-friendly Advocate” on city council to ensure these principles are applied and that older adults are given a voice on important issues.

Power at the ballot box

The “age friendly city” is not just an “insider” topic — a topic for policy advocates, politicians and civil servants. It can be driven by Baby Boomers and seniors (collectively, Zoomers) and the outcomes can be decided in the voting booth. That’s because Baby Boomers and seniors collectively dominate elections. In the past two federal elections, the Zoomers (age 45-plus) accounted for 59 per cent of all votes cast. The reason is simple: There are more of them to begin with, and they turn out in larger numbers than younger voters.

The CARP sponsored debate on the “age friendly city” is an instructive example of how hot the topic is, and how much leverage the Baby Boomer and senior vote can wield.

Over 300 people attended the debate at Ryerson University, and the event was broadcast live on ZoomerMedia websites, including this one. As debate moderator, Susan Eng, Vice President of Advocacy at CARP, challenged the five leading mayoral candidates — Rob Ford, Rocco Rossi, Sarah Thomson, Joe Pantalone and George Smitherman — on issues like transportation, elder abuse, housing, services for priority neighbourhoods, and how the city plans to pay for the much-needed changes.

At its conclusion, CARP asked candidates to sign a five-point pledge that outlined ways in which the candidates promised to make Toronto a more age-friendly city. Four out of the five candidates signed.

The debate was covered in national print and broadcast media, and CARP has already received requests to sponsor similar debates in other cities where there are mayoral and council elections coming up. CARP is already planning similar debates in Ottawa and Barrie. (How about your city? Let CARP know.)

The more citizens speak up, the more attention age-friendly initiatives will get as a city’s future takes shape. The numbers show that Zoomers have the political clout — it’s just a question of using it.

As for, we plan to continue covering this important topic, and updating our readers on future debates, policy papers and other helpful information that can keep readers informed and also plugged in to the action.


Download and read CARP’s report at

For more information about age-friendly cities and communities, see the WHO Age-Friendly Environments Programme and the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Age-Friendly Communities Initiative.

Additional sources: The Globe and Mail, The National Post and the Toronto Star.

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