Cities across Ontario are facing a major challenge: how to make their communities accessible, comfortable, and safe for the growing demographic of seniors. Jeff Lehman, the mayor of Barrie, and Gwen Cavanagh, the Barrie chair of CARP — an advocacy organization for older Canadians — spoke to Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer about how the city has embraced forward-thinking redesign initiatives.
“For a growing city like Barrie, as we get bigger, we want to make sure that we’re considering the unique needs of people at different ages of their lives,” says Lehman, “and that we’re not taking the one-size-fits-all approach to city building, to delivering our programs, to delivering our services.”
Barrie’s age-friendly plan, developed in 2016, focuses on six main areas: transportation, housing, health, public spaces, recreation, and inclusiveness. Sixty initiatives are now being rolled out — the city has made traffic-light walk times longer, moved bus stops closer to residential areas, and put additional accessible buses in its fleet. Barrie will also be creating programs to help people avoid isolation and designing services for people with lower incomes.
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Some houses in the city are being adapted to accommodate co-housing, giving single seniors the opportunity to buy into a shared residence to pool expenses, alleviate loneliness, and generally look out for one another.
“My chapter’s been focused on one thing — co-housing,” says Cavanagh. “That is either a rebuild or a new build where you put four or five or six people in the same house. They have a suite each, which consists of a bedroom, a bathroom, and a sitting room. And all the rest is a common area. So we have a new one, just started in Barrie — beautiful big house. It allows you to live in a million-dollar house.”
The municipal government was on board with co-housing, but needed to work out the possible implications.
“Co-housing was something that our building department wasn't really sure how to handle,” says Lehman. “Under the Ontario Building Code, it falls in between a few things that we’re used to. So that took a bit of education just in terms of those common areas. Does it require extra fire ratings? Because of the intended tenants, do we need any additional accessibility measures? And at the same time, as a municipality, we should always be aware that whenever we require something more, it costs something. And that cost gets passed along to people who we're trying to create more affordable housing options for.”
For its work on the plan, the city received a 2018 Age-Friendly Community Recognition Award, part of a program introduced last year by the ministry responsible for seniors’ affairs.