Community Newspaper Columns

Ottawa can do more to prevent urban isolation

January 2014

Speaking to a neighbour while shovelling snow, I learned of her plans to retire in Toronto. Thanks to our harsh winters, Ottawa just isn’t a place for seniors, she said. “They feel isolated. It’s not healthy.”
I was tempted to rhyme off my usual lines in defence of the city and season I love: “It’s not that bad. Winter is just a state of mind. You’ve got to get outside and embrace it …” But I had a feeling that if I were 20 years older, perhaps with mobility challenges, I might not be so enthused about winter.

Just that day, I had been slip-sliding my way home from my Bank Street bus stop. It’s just three blocks, but they felt plenty long even for me, fit and active at 50.
What must it be like for somebody older, less fit, living alone or reliant on an assistive device? How likely would I have been to venture out that day to run errands, attend a fitness class, meet friends at the local cafe? Not very! I would have needed someone to drive me. If no such someone was available, if the wait for Para Transpo were lengthy, if I couldn’t afford a taxi, or if I just didn’t feel up to making those calls, I would likely have stayed home, perhaps alone.

Long and lonely winters are the reality for many amongst us, and the number of people facing such challenges will only grow as our population ages.
Yes, there are ways to connect virtually with friends and family. Between Facebook, email, Skype and the good old telephone, can you ever really feel alone? We’ve never been more connected and in touch with our “friends.”

Yet several studies have identified a growing sense of isolation among people of all ages, but notably the less mobile. It would seem that being virtually connected is not much better than being outright alone. A true friend is more than a photo on Facebook, or somebody who “likes” you status update. It’s someone who drops by for tea or invites you out to a film. It’s someone who rushes over when your basement floods or offers you a lift to church and back.

Sure, connecting with far-flung relatives via the Internet is a lot better than seeing them every few years when you fly to Victoria or Hong Kong. But, in our quest to reduce isolation as part of building healthy communities and citizens, we can’t expect technology to provide all the solutions.

Addressing this issue benefits us all through improved physical and mental health, and the kind of societal health that is generated when people know each other, watch out for each other and share experiences and goals through frequent, often informal personal contact. “Looking out for each other” is an older way of putting it. “Eyes on the street” is a newer way of describing the phenomenon of citizens who are literally on the sidewalks, sitting on a bench or gazing down from a balcony, from where they meet people, see what’s going on, and care enough to take action when required.

What can I do — in concert with the communities I represent, other councillors and city staff — to not just reduce isolation, but build connections as well?

  1. Increase spaces where people can meet others spontaneously and look out over the bustle of daily life: small plazas and parks, more benches, etc.
  2. Build for success: Studies all over the world conclude that tall residential buildings tend to promote isolation, whereas low-rise buildings promote greater interaction.
  3. Promote comfortable indoor gathering spaces and activities for all ages, within community centres, shopping centres, etc.
  4. Work to improve snow clearing on our sidewalks, especially the windrows — those hard-packed ridges left by competing road and sidewalk plows. Is there a place again for manual shovels?
  5. Increase the number of bus shelters, both OC Transpo ones or informal shelters made available near shops and office buildings.
  6. Review the bus route “optimization” that saw some important routes reduced or eliminated, and test the efficacy of boosting bus ridership by increasing frequency of service on select routes.

Ottawa is always going to have its cold and dark months, and its weeks of treacherous travel conditions. But that doesn’t mean we should settle for being a “bad place to retire.” Maybe we should automatically consider that whenever we make transportation and planning decisions.

Pantry update: The future of The Pantry is generating some emails and calls from Old Ottawa South, even though it’s in the Glebe Community Centre. In the spirit of promoting connections, as of mid-December, I had facilitated two meetings of affected parties to explore ways to keep The Pantry operating in some form. All parties appear open to compromise, and we’ll keep working on a solution.

Councillor David Chernushenko