Grey wave to change streets

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Citys need walkable neighbourhoods for seniors, says researcher

St. Albert needs to become denser and walkable if it wants to be a good place for seniors, says a researcher.

About 25 people gathered at the St. Albert Senior Citizens’ Club Thursday night for a talk on healthy aging in suburban environments. The talk is part of an ongoing series of lectures organized by the city’s planning department.

Alberta’s seniors population is set to double in 25 years, says Sherrill Johnson, an independent researcher who studies the health effects of urban planning at the University of Alberta, which will lead to a jump in chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Falls alone would cost Albertans about $228 million a year by 2031, she estimated, compared to $96 million today.

Planners and doctors now recognize a strong link between urban design and health, Johnson says. Low density, car-dependent suburbs discourage walking and encourage air pollution, worsening the chronic conditions that crowd today’s emergency rooms.

Urban sprawl is very costly from a health and tax perspective, said Coun. Len Bracko, and he said he hoped the current council would re-think its approach to development. “We really have to give more thought to building the future of St. Albert, and if we don’t do it now, it’s going to cost us down the road.”

A place to grow old

Johnson presented the preliminary results of her research with focus groups held earlier this year.

Seniors cited poor transit service and a lack of local shops as obstacles to healthy living. “There are very few places in Edmonton where you’d be able to get your groceries, do your banking [and visit your doctor]within a reasonably short distance of where you live,” she said.

“Sidewalks really mattered,” she added. About 78 per cent of all seniors admitted to hospitals are there because of falls, and about half are caused by environmental factors like poor sidewalks. Planners needed to make sure their walks are complete, level, and regularly plowed for seniors.

Seniors said they wanted to live in places where they could get to know their neighbours and wouldn’t be alone while everyone was at work, she continued. “Seniors wanted to see children in their neighbourhood.” Back alleys and front porches could both encourage more interaction between neighbours.

Planners would have to create denser neighbourhoods to attract more local stores, Johnson said. They wouldn’t have to be Beijing-dense, she added, but would have to be more than just blocks of single-family homes.

Several residents cited the proposed Grandin mall redevelopment as a way to make life better for seniors.

That mall used to have many local services, said Mayke Byl, a 40-year city resident, but they’ve vanished. “We don’t have anything in Grandin,” she said, which means seniors have to travel far to shop.

Ab Barrie, a retired resident who drives a school bus, said the city should redevelop areas like the mall to preserve its green spaces. “I don’t want to move into something at the top edge of Erin Ridge,” he said. “I want to be in a position where I can walk.”

St. Albert needs more walkable, senior-friendly neighbourhoods like the Rosedale centre on Arlington Drive, Bracko said, but there’s a lot of public resistance to such development. “We have to look at what the research says, not what we like and don’t like,” he said. “You can’t have no-infill and low-density [development]and continue to have taxes remain at low levels.”

Rising costs and an aging population would convince people to take another look at walkable development, Bracko said. “I think if we even get one tower on Grandin mall, it’ll change people’s way of thinking.”

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.