The tables at the Grand Gardens Downtown were full of people eager to hear and suggest ideas to improve the city during internationally acclaimed placemaking expert and Chair of World Urban Parks Gil Penalosa’s speaking event ‘Age Friendly Cities & Walkability’.
This event was part of Algoma Public Health’s 50th anniversary celebrations in conjunction with Future Sault Ste. Marie.
Penalosa is the founder and chair of 8 80 Cities, a Canadian nonprofit with a mission to improve sustainable mobility, parks, and public spaces to transform urban areas into cities that are great for both 8-year-olds and 80-year olds. This organization has worked with over 250 communities across six continents to improve residents’ physical and mental health.
“If it’s good for the 8-year-old and it’s good for the 80-year-old, then it’s going to be good for everybody from 0 to over 100,” he told SaultOnline. “We need to stop building a city as if everyone was 30-years-old and athletic and be the great Sault Ste. Marie for everyone.”
His suggestions to do so included thinking about how the city is used and ways to improve upon that, such as utilizing infrastructure, such as schools and parks, and implementing programs to promote physical activity.
“Everything public has to work in sync to the benefit of all the population,” he said. “All of these things that Future Sault Ste. Marie is talking about – quality of life, that is the most important tool of economic development.”
Penalosa said he thinks communities in Northern Ontario need to reinvent themselves so they can thrive. He said, in order to do so, everyone needs to work together – the public sector, private sector, and the citizens, as well as the municipality and the province.
“You need everyone working together towards a similar goal,” he said. “I think that every morning, the leaders from the public sector, private sector, NGOs, should be waking up thinking ‘How can we retain our best people?’ ‘ How can we attract the best people?'”
He said he thinks Future Sault Ste. Marie is interesting because it’s “like a puzzle.”
“It doesn’t really matter which piece that you use as long as their part of the same puzzle,” he explained. “But it’s horrible when you’re trying to figure out pieces of different puzzles, but then you create a frankenstein.”
Future Sault Ste. Marie Project Manager Travis Anderson said the group plans to implement some of Penalosa’s ideas, while some are already in the works for the new year, including projects in the downtown core involving improvements to pedestrian and cyclist mobility, and in the North end of town with respect to additional multi-use trial systems, adding to the street life and vibrancy.
“I think it’s going to help improve mobility and getting people out walking,” he said. “I think as a community, we need to create those opportunities for people. We’ve got a very walkable downtown, especially with the waterfront, it’s just a matter of creating the vibrancy there that draws the people out of their cars.”
He said he thinks Penalosa’s 8 80 Cities plan is very positive and a great way to set this community apart.
“I think when you’re keeping those age groups in front-of-mind when you’re developing a community, I think you can’t go wrong,” he said. “And I think really focusing on creating a fun community for all ages will really set us apart.”
Another suggestion Penalosa had was to start engaging the older adults, especially since people are living longer and much of the Sault’s population is older adults.
Anderson said that Future Sault Ste. Marie recognizes that the population is aging and living longer and is taking that into consideration in their planning process.
“The same thing that the older population is looking for – which is increased mobility, better transit, access to walking and cycling – is the same thing that we’re going to be seeing from the millennials that we’re trying to attract, or newcomers to Sault Ste. Maire that we’re trying to bring here. So I think there’s a lot of commonality there,” he said.
Penalosa said he thinks this initiative is an important way to ensure the health and happiness of people in different communities, it’s just going to take some changes.
“I think that improving and having more successful and healthier communities is totally doable. Unfortunately, we are not doing enough of it,” he said. “I know that change is hard, doing more of the same is easy, but there are some big problems so we need to change to improve in every way.”
Anderson said after hearing Penalosa’s presentation, he feels positive about the future and direction of the Sault.
“I’m very excited about the future of Sault Ste. Marie,” he said. “I think we’ve got a great community here with a lot of positives, it’s just a matter of building upon those and getting the message out.”
For more information on 8 80 Cities, check out their website here.