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Age-friendly communities involve more than courtesy

As I start creeping closer and closer to being able to qualify for seniors’ discounts, discussions about creating age-friendly communities attract my attention and interest in what it means to me and where I live. Like many people, I also have friends and family members who are struggling with dementia and looking for ways to stay at home with their families. With this in mind, it’s reassuring to hear that there is a growing awareness of the need to create age-friendly communities and a wide range of programs and services that are already in place to help support older citizens.

I first became aware of the need for better planning and programs to help enable aging residents who want to stay in their homes a few years ago when my cousin, Yvonne Poulin, co-authored a book – Aging Safely in Your Home – that provides a simple yet comprehensive guide for seniors and the people who care about them. My cousin told me how there are ways to assess what personal and housing adaptations may be required to age safely in your home, and when it might be a better choice to relocate. Up until then, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to what it must be like to find it difficult to complete simple household tasks or even move safely around your home.

What I learned as I did the interviews and research for this edition of Exchange is that there are programs and planning underway that take the same approach on a community basis – creating an environment that is safe and welcoming for all ages and abilities. I was also surprised to learn that local governments don’t need to be the leader in these initiatives – they just need to be part of a partnership that also involves the provincial government, community-based seniors’ services and other province-wide organizations like BC Healthy Communities and the United Way.

In Creating Age-Friendly Communities from the Ground Up, it was amazing to see the work that has been done in recent years to take a fragmented sector of community service providers and pull them together into a more cohesive network that collaborates and shares resources and expertise to benefit communities across the province. There is a stunning amount of work being done to support these community-based services as well as local governments who are pursuing age-friendly policies, plans and initiatives. As someone who is edging closer to some of those demographic markers for seniors, I’m happy to see this trend to improve everything from the built environment to social programs to make it easier to live in and enjoy the community as we age.

It was also helpful to hear from two local governments who have been recognized for their work in creating age-friendly communities. In Becoming Age Friendly: Case Studieswe learn how they have connected with their local seniors and community organizations to create programs and plans for seniors in their community. Because seniors are involved at the earlier stages and are consulted not just on the barriers or other concerns but also on viable solutions to address their needs, the resulting plans and recommendations have added weight when presented to Councils. It’s also nice to see a recognition that seniors have a lot of value to bring to the table, and we need to find ways to help them become more integrated into decisions that affect them.


Mother Nature delivers services?

Have you heard of natural asset management? I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really know what it was all about. Then, as I spoke to some of the key people involved in the Municipal Natural Asset Initiative (MNAI), I was more in a state of shock that something so obvious has been missed for so long. I know how easy it is to take the things we enjoy every day for granted – beautiful forests, amazing mountains, gorgeous lakes and rivers, and stunning oceanfront landscapes. When it comes to nature in B.C., we seem to have it all. But I had never thought about all this amazing nature in the context of services being delivered in a community.

Essentially, it became clear as I worked on both feature stories in Exchange that local governments are relying on nature for a number of services, but they may not fully understand the scope of the services or the implications if those natural areas are degraded. I’m also really impressed that the Town of Gibsons is the pioneer leading this important insight into the value of preserving nature to secure sustainable, resilient services. It all started with the Gibsons aquifer, and now the world is watching and learning from work being done in our province.

It seems like these are just early days in the study of natural assets in the context of the services they provide, but it’s also likely that we may only be skimming the surface right now. I found it interesting that researchers who examined tree cover in 10 large cities found that tree canopy provides those communities with an average of $500 million annually in benefits like reducing air pollution, improving water management and lowering the “heat island” effect. Those are significant impacts that in the past may have appeared to be too intangible to measure but are now being quantified in terms that are relatable and can support decision-making, such as when planning neighbourhoods or establishing tree protection bylaws.

I suppose it’s not surprising to anyone that Mother Nature is a lot better at handling weather impacts than what we can design and build. But what is more surprising is that the evidence from Gibsons and other MNAI pilot communities shows that it consistently costs less to expand and maintain natural assets than to build and maintain engineered options. So nature is proving to be more resilient and more cost-effective. This is particularly critical as communities across Canada face the challenge of their aging infrastructure, budget constraints to maintain or expand engineered assets, and continued pressure from more severe weather events and related impacts such as the wildfires and floods experienced this summer. Now local and regional governments just need to find out how to leverage these natural advantages in their local communities.

With work being done by Gibsons, MNAI and other researchers, there is a growing set of tools, expanded research, new policy direction and increased awareness about natural assets as part of core service delivery. With more communities joining MNAI pilot projects, there will continue to be more studies, more evidence and more tools to assess and quantify natural assets so that they can be embedded in local and regional asset management planning.

The next time I get asked about natural asset management, I’m glad I’ll know a lot more about what it’s all about and the tremendous potential it offers our communities.


Tackling the Affordable Housing Crisis

Sitting in the comfort of my home office and looking out at the houses around me, it can be hard to put my mind into a place where I can imagine what it’s like for people who are living on the street or struggling to pay their rent. All it takes is a few minutes watching the news, reviewing social media or talking to colleagues in local government to sharpen the focus on these very challenging issues.

In Exchange, we hear from communities that are taking action to end homelessness and create more affordable housing. This is particularly impressive as both issues involve a myriad of complex causes and influencing factors, and cannot easily be resolved. As I spoke to the local and regional government staff who shared their experiences and insights, it was a bit difficult to avoid feeling bogged down by pessimism or overwhelmed by the sheer challenges and barriers they face.

Addiction, mental illness, job loss, disabilities, low vacancy rates, high rental rates…the list of factors affecting homelessness are widely varied and the result is that there’s no such thing as one solution fits all. It’s also important to remember that these types of health and social issues are not typically addressed by local government. As well, when it comes to the lack of affordable housing, local government has little or no control over many of the contributing factors such as escalating real estate costs and low vacancy rates due to increased demand.

Then there is the NIMBY factor – “Not in my backyard!” No one wants people who are homeless camping in their backyard. I sincerely doubt that most people you talk to would feel any differently, and I can certainly understand the fear and, sad to say, distaste. Residents want to distance themselves from people who are homeless. But there is also resistance to having homeless shelters, even in centralized locations or business districts. Rather than NIMBY it’s really NIMC – “Not in my community!”

The question then becomes, if not in your community – where can people go? Where can they get the help they need? I was shocked to learn how many young people are homeless and addicted to drugs. It was also interesting and somewhat reassuring to learn about the proven benefits of “Housing First” to help change people’s lives and get them off the street – permanently. I think perhaps we all need to remember that these are people first – and being homeless is just their current status. Furthermore, if there are viable solutions out there to help get people off the street and into housing so they can get back on their feet or be helped with their mental health problems, addictions and other issues, we all benefit.

It’s also encouraging to hear about success stories like New Westminster, where the changes and incentives introduced at a local government level are prompting new rental housing developments for the first time in decades, and changes in policies are providing for more varieties of housing options, such as secondary suites and laneway homes. These more affordable housing choices are all a positive step forward.

As each story was shared, it became evident that implementing viable solutions is only feasible when community and social service organizations are integrated into the process. It’s also essential that all three levels of government play a role, including providing leadership to guide new initiatives and allocating funding. It may take months, or more likely years, before there is a significant shift towards more affordable housing and an end to homelessness, but that makes it even more important to get started now.