Cities for an ageing population: Vancouver


By 2045 the proportion of the population aged over 65 will rise to 25%. This equates to 146 million more older adults than there are today – totalling 1.4bn globally. Insights from four diverse cities – Hong Kong, London, Madrid and Vancouver – explore the way cities are responding to this demographic shift.

Vancouver is a fast growing city but its ability to create sufficient housing to meet the demands of a growing population is generally constrained by lack of available land (surrounded by mountains to the North, an ocean to the West, the United States border to the South, and greenbelt and agricultural land to the East), long entitlement and permit timelines and public resistance. The result of this has been fast-rising property prices and an increasing affordability problem.

While this has led to a debate about housing supply, the primary focus of both the public and politicians has been on young people and families and how they will afford to live in the city. My concern is about a lack of attention to the other end of the demographic, the large increase in the ageing population.

This constraint on space means densification within existing communities is required, especially as there is a strong desire among older people to remain in neighbourhoods where they have established their lives and social networks. There is overwhelming demand for new residential condominiums and it is not unusual for 100+ unit buildings to sell out in a weekend.

However, there is resistance to these types of developments, particularly within the communities where we know there is the most demand for that product. The strong NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back- Yard) tendencies present in many municipalities means the very people who have reached or are reaching retirement are often the ones opposed to those plans.

The challenge for the municipal councils and planning departments is to find solutions to bring more supply onto the market more quickly to meet the needs of people looking to downsize without putting further strain on existing civil and transportation infrastructure.

Grosvenor has designed a number of developments aimed at the downsizing market. By way of example, our 98-unit Grosvenor Ambleside development in West Vancouver is designed to meet the needs of the ageing community by including local serving retail outlets and an enhanced public realm.

The homes have largely been purchased by local older residents who want to remain in the community where their roots are, while being able to walk to local shops and restaurants.

Our Connaught development in North Vancouver features 82 homes over three or four storeys with over 60,000 square feet of ground floor retail including full service grocery and drug stores. We have received strong local interest; particularly from downsizers in the immediate vicinity. Our proposed downtown Vancouver condominium development, The Pacific, is also attracting interest from active downsizers who want to enjoy the vibrancy of the urban environment.

The primary focus of both the public and politicians in Vancouver has been on young people and families and how they will afford to live in the city

Another challenge will be to meet the demand from older people who have not built up equity in their homes to fund downsizing and who will require rental apartments in a tight market where the vacancy rate is below 1% regionally. There is a big problem emerging that will likely require government intervention, which could be as simple as rezoning areas for senior assisted living and care homes.

The challenge is for municipalities to encourage the construction of more accommodation for both sale and rent, marketed to older people while at the same time meeting demand from the younger generations. Creating balanced communities that serve diverse interests is how healthy societies survive.

Hopefully there will also be a change in the way developers look at senior living that produces more options between the current family home and a facility providing full care. People who are ageing nowadays are more active and want to be around like-minded people but do not want or need to go into a care facility.

The problem is that I do not see a lot of planning happening in municipalities for making specific zones or land parcels where the only approvable use is senior housing or a care facility. In the absence of deliberate zoning, land prices can escalate to a point where developing certain forms of housing for the ageing is not likely the highest and best use and therefore developers are not likely to do so.

One positive trend is the growing YIMBY (Yes-In-My-Back-Yard) movement among the younger generations who are aware that there is a need for more high density housing to respond to the demand created by a growing population and changing demographics.

As developers and planners, we have to figure out how to increase the supply while accepting that that process will change the city. That will be a big challenge but it’s what has to happen to address the needs of an ageing population.

Author bio

James Patillo is Managing Director, Development, Grosvenor Americas.