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Marc and Brooke Gilchrist and their three children: Aden, 8 years old, Lincoln, 5 years old and Emery, 22 months old play in a neighbourhood park in Airdrie, Alberta on Sunday, May 27, 2012. They made the move to the growing suburb about 20 mins north of Calgary after the realized the high cost of real estate in the city. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Marc and Brooke Gilchrist and their three children: Aden, 8 years old, Lincoln, 5 years old and Emery, 22 months old play in a neighbourhood park in Airdrie, Alberta on Sunday, May 27, 2012. They made the move to the growing suburb about 20 mins north of Calgary after the realized the high cost of real estate in the city. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Demographics

Alberta bucks demographic trend as young families come in droves Add to ...

It's Sunday afternoon in Airdrie, and the playground is bustling. Bikes, scooters and strollers zigzag along paths, the swings are full and there's a lineup for the slide.

Canada’s population is aging, with census data released Tuesday expected to show nearly half the population now over 40. In many communities, it means playgrounds sit idle. But it’s a different story in Alberta. Young workers have flocked here, starting families and sending populations soaring in suburbs such as Airdrie.

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This Calgary bedroom community of about 45,000 is among the youngest and fastest-growing places in Alberta. As other communities in Canada age and shutter schools, Airdrie is scrambling to accommodate its new residents and new babies, the type of population growth that will help feed Alberta’s labour-starved economy for a generation.

Here, schools are overflowing – by the time they're built, they're already well over capacity and need portables. Now they’re running out of space for portables. One school, for Kindergarten to Grade 4, has 870 students. This is a family town.

“And I like that,” says Brooke Gilchrist, 30, a mother of three and dental hygienist who moved to Airdrie three years ago with her husband, Marc. “If you were young and single, you'd probably hate it because it's all young families.”

The Gilchrists moved to a bigger home this month, and had a choice. They could move to Calgary, about half an hour south, and buy a decades-old house in a community with few children, where theirs would face long school-bus rides. Or they could get a house only a few years old in Airdrie. It didn’t take them long to decide. “The house you can get into for the same money in Airdrie is unbelievable,” says Mr. Gilchrist, 34, a social worker.

They bought here, steps away from a bustling playground in the picket-fence suburban enclave where the boom is just beginning. The number of households is forecast to double again over the next two decades.

Young families are “able to get into homes in this community, and it's great for them. We just need to provide them places for their children to go to school,” says school trustee Sylvia Eggerer. Her grandson, age 10, is in a class of 48 kids, in what was originally meant to be a music room.

In the first quarter of 2011, Alberta attracted nearly as many Canadians who moved to a new province as the nine other provinces combined. It doubled the number of immigrants it attracts over the last decade and it has by far the smallest share of people of retirement age in Canada.

Business analyst Jon Cullen, 33, moved from Ontario to Calgary more than a decade ago and, five years ago, up to Airdrie. Now a father of three, he prefers the slower pace, despite his one-hour commute to work.

“It's amazing. Things are so much easier here,” he says, adding he hasn’t had trouble finding school spots for his kids. “Not yet. And I say ‘yet’ because we know what the shortage is.”

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Children add up, schools try to keep up

Young, booming towns have children – and in Airdrie, the schools can’t keep up. In the past decade, public school enrolment in Airdrie has jumped 44 per cent.

Last year, the province awarded Airdrie two new schools. They’re not yet built, and the community already needs more. By 2022, public school enrolment is expected to jump another 54 per cent. “There never seems to be enough,” says trustee Sylvia Eggerer.

Last year, Alberta announced $550-million in school building projects, with Premier Alison Redford promising another $1.2-billion during the election campaign.

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Infrastructure under stress

As Airdrie’s population has boomed, its city council has been trying to keep up – and hopes the province will do the same.

A major Alberta highway, between Edmonton and Calgary, runs through the community and though Airdrie has an overpass, it says another is needed. It built two new fire halls, but needs a third. It has opened up scores of new neighbourhoods, but they aren’t enough. A city application to annex even more land was approved earlier this year. It’s served by RCMP, with the city building a new police station that tripled the size of the old one.

“It puts a lot of stress on a lot of the existing infrastructure – community centres, libraries, community safety, things of that nature,” says Mayor Peter Brown.

Recreation space is also at a premium. Airdrie has only three ice rinks, the mayor says. Two more are currently being built.

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Improving health care a priority

Despite a population of roughly 45,000 people, Airdrie doesn’t have a hospital or a 24-hour health centre. Instead, its health facility is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

It’s a 20 or 30 minute drive north to hospitals in the communities of Olds or Didsbury (each with fewer residents than Airdrie) or south to one of Calgary’s hospitals.

Despite the modest service, Airdrie continues to struggle to recruit health-care staff – particularly doctors, says Mayor Peter Brown. He says a hospital is his community’s top priority.

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