On the surface, Hamilton’s aging baby boomers and urban renewal hipsters don’t seem like natural allies.

But experts say if you look at Hamilton’s plan to develop an “age-friendly city,” what one group wants when it comes to complete streets, transit and downtown density is exactly what the other group needs, to blossom in the city in the coming years.

With a retiree population about to explode, the transformation Hamilton needs to undergo to suit an aging population needs to be urgently addressed..

The first swath of baby boomers – the generation born between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1960s – has started hitting retirement age. The Ministry of Finance's projection for Hamilton’s senior population is that it will grow by 93 per cent by 2033.

'Essentially what you’ll have is tens of thousands of older people trapped in the suburbs with no car.' - Jim Dunn, McMaster University professor of health, aging and society

Right now, Hamilton isn’t set up to support that kind of population shift – and downtown renewal, an improved transit system and denser, affordable housing are some of the best tools in the city’s arsenal to change that, experts say.

“Honestly, the whole urban renewal vibe is just as attractive to the older crowd as the younger one,” said Jim Dunn, a professor of health, aging and society at McMaster University.

The first batch of they city’s boomer population is hitting about 70 now, but it’s when they turn 80 in a decade that we’ll really notice problems, Dunn says. Many of those people are car-dependent and live in the suburbs, but there’s no way that they’ll all be able to live on their own and drive well into their 80s.

“Essentially what you’ll have is tens of thousands of older people trapped in the suburbs with no car,” Dunn said, while lamenting that the sort of sprawling development the city has pushed in the last few decades is the exact opposite of what the people who live in it will need as they age.

“What we really need is to think through the idea of affordable housing in service-rich, dense neighbourhoods.”

'Housing is the key'

That conversation is already underway. The Hamilton Council on Aging, alongside the city, partnered to create Hamilton’s Plan for an Age-Friendly City to deal with these issues. On Friday, several agencies are speaking at an event called The Great Art of Living: Housing and Aging in Hamilton.

Margaret Denton

Margaret Denton, the vice president of the Hamilton council on aging, says that people should view the vast swath of boomers who are hitting retirement as a "triumph of our time." (Adam Carter/CBC)

“Housing is the fundamental key here,” said Denise O’Connor, the lead consultant on the aging plan. She says that Hamilton’s recent moves towards increased urbanization and complete streets are integral to the plan’s success. “That’s being driven by younger people … but we know it’s better for everybody.”

Dense, attractive, affordable housing is integral for seniors for a few reasons. It enables walkability (which helps with physical fitness and staves off medical needs) and also allows for “incidental interactions” with other people that helps foster a sense of community and helps with mental health, she says.

It also allows for increased effectiveness for home care workers, who would have to travel much shorter distances to visit clients.

“There’s a huge demand for walkability,” Dunn said.

The LRT question

Bolstering Hamilton’s transit system is also an important part of making the city an age-friendly place, says Dr. Margaret Denton, the vice-president of the Hamilton Council on Aging.

Though she can’t speak for the council as a whole, Denton is personally in favour of an LRT line in Hamilton, as she believes it would benefit the city as a whole. But we also have to encourage older adults to get out and take public transit – not as a last resort, but as a first choice, she says.

“As a friend of mine says, the senior’s bus pass is the best deal going,” she said.

O’Connor says she heard plenty about the sorry state of the city’s bus system during the citizen engagement portion of the aging plan. “There was this one woman who needed to take four buses just to get groceries,” she said. What the city needs, she says, is a system that’s full of easily accessible bus stops and a solid transit system all over.

“But suburbs aren’t designed for that – and that’s what we built for 50 years,” she said.

Dunn maintains that LRT is the best option to get people out and using public transit in Hamilton, which has historically lagged behind other municipalities. “It’s going to attract a wider swath of the populace to the downtown core,” he said.

“If you’re going to use carrots to get people out of their cars, the carrots have to be very attractive.”

Planning is one thing, but will it actually happen?

So what are the chances that this aging plan – which is supported by and works in conjunction with other plans like Metrolinx’s Big Move – actually gets implemented anytime soon?

“It’s really too early to tell,” O’Connor said. “But we’ll get an indication from what kinds of resources council is willing to put behind it.” City council has allocated staff resources to implement an action plan for the initial recommendations, and that’s set to come to council next year.

“I don’t think that it will just sit on a shelf,” Denton said.

There’s no reason to wait when it comes to implementing these ideas, Dunn says – in part because Hamilton already has optimal street design for it, including short blocks and high density possibilities.

But it’s also because we’re simply running out on time, he says. “Ten years is going to go by in the snap of a finger.

“It’s not too soon to be looking at this. It might even be too late.”