February 8, 2009
“The guy never went outside at all,” said my friend. “Not for a month or maybe two months. The story was in one of the papers here. He went to the theatre, shopped for food and clothing, did his banking, ate out, all kinds of stuff. He even went to Toronto and New York – and he never went outdoors.”
“He went to New York without going outdoors?”
“He went by train. The Gare Central is underground, right under your hotel. ”
We were in Montreal, strolling along the underground passageways which are said to constitute the second-largest underground city in the world, after Moscow. I had been working in Montreal for a week. I was staying at Le Reine Elizabeth, on the Boulevard Rene Levesque, and most of my meetings were on Sherbrooke Ouest, 20 minutes' walk away. The streets were choked with snow and lethally slick with ice – but I wore just a sweater as I walked past coffee shops, jewellers and haberdashers in perfect comfort.
It occurred to me that the underground network made Montreal a safer city than any other in Canada, particularly for senior citizens. Walking outdoors in the winter is a really hazardous activity for seniors. Every year, hundreds fall and break their arms and legs and hips – a significant factor in the Orange Alert at the Halifax Infirmary ER last month. Old bones don't knit quickly, and many never really recover.
The danger was brought home to me a year ago, when I suddenly found myself lying on the ice beside my car. I had taken my key out, and I was about to unlock the door – and then I was on my patootie. I don't remember slipping or falling. It was like a jump-cut in a film. One moment I was up, the next I was down. A few bruises aside, I was none the worse for the experience – but it got my attention.
Young seniors – from 60 to 80, say – often sidestep this problem by going south. You find them all over the southern US, Mexico and the islands, robust and happy, sailing and golfing and swimming. But after 80, snowbirding loses its appeal. At 85 or 90, people don't feel much like travelling, and don't travel as comfortably. They'd rather stay home, close to friends and family and doctors. And that puts them most at risk from winter conditions at precisely the point when they're least able to deal with such challenges.
In Montreal, they're fine. Their apartment buildings connect to the Métro, and the Métro takes them to the under-cover city downtown. They really don't have to emerge until spring.
So at 80, should I live in Montreal?
Why not downtown Halifax? The city already has the beginnings of a covered downtown, with pedways and tunnels running from the Prince George Hotel to the waterfront casino, and branching into apartment buildings and office towers. We don't have to burrow underground. We can just extend the pedway system to link the whole downtown, from Cogswell to the Via station. A large part of Calgary's downtown is connected that way.
In Montreal, I noticed, some of the covered space was captured simply by putting a roof over the space between existing buildings. What was once a back alley becomes a connecting courtyard with a Starbucks coffee shop. In other places, a short tunnel between buildings converts two musty basements into prime retail space. Halifax probably has a score of locations where connections like that would work.
And, although a Métro doesn't seem very practical in rock-ribbed Halifax, we could bring back the downtown streetcars, looping down Barrington and up Water Street, with stations right inside such major buildings as Scotia Square and the Westin. Alternatively, could we use a light elevated rail system like the one that connects the terminals at JFK Airport
I'm no planner, and these notions may be unworkable. Fine: let's hear better ones. The point is that we're about to have a tsunami of seniors, and it would be good for them – and for everyone else, too – if we made it possible to live a safe and active life in the middle of the city all year round.
We know it can be done. Vive le Montreal!
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