Alone Together: Vancouver Might Be More Socially Isolated Than Ever

Six years ago, a Vancouver Foundation survey identified social isolation as the city's most pressing problem. Has anything changed?

August 24, 2017

By Petti Fong

Andrea Reimer has always avoided multi-storey buildings. For just about anyone else, we could leave that as personal preference. But as an elected representative in a city height-bent on building upwards, Reimer has some explaining to do.

“I’ve never been attracted to living in a multi-unit place,” she says. “We lived in Trout Lake in a single family home and there was always something to do in the neighbourhood so it was not something we considered we had to change.” Living near Trout Lake, Reimer felt plugged in and connected, which helped her both personally and professionally. All she had to do to engage with her neighbours, also her constituents, was walk out the front door.

But like so many other Vancouverites, Reimer was forced to make a change due to the two Rs. The city councillor, a renter, was renovicted. She and her family moved a few blocks away into a 12-storey building on Kingsway. They saw no one for the first few months, leading Reimer to conclude they were alone, the only occupants on a floor full of empty apartments.

Alone in a Sea of People

Feeling isolated in this city is not a new problem. Back in 2011, the Vancouver Foundation, which funds community programs, caused quite the stir when it released the results of a survey showing social isolation was Vancouver’s number one concern.

The discovery was accidental. The foundation had initially asked 100 people to identify the city’s most pressing problem, thinking it would be one of the usual suspects—homelessness, addiction, affordability—but the reaction to those issues was a resounding meh. The biggest problem, respondents said, was a lack of connection. The revelation provided an important clue as to why those more high-profile problems weren’t getting resolved, says Lidia Kemeny, a director at the foundation.

“While all the other issues are problematic, if we can’t make people care [about each other], we will never solve the issues of drug addiction, homelessness,” she says. “If people don’t care and won’t work together to make the community better, then it doesn’t matter how many tens of millions is pumped into solving the issues.”

Beautiful as it is, Vancouver’s skyline seems to emit a sense of loneliness for many residents of the city.

Although small, the survey ignited a big response. News outlets pounced on the story—the Vancouver Sun even ran a multipart series exploring the issue. Meanwhile the foundation set aside $1 million to support more than 1,000 initiatives aimed at encouraging community connections, such as weekly neighbourhood cleanups, or community kitchens where people can cook together and share a meal. The city also stepped in after the survey results came out, launching a task force to engage more residents, especially youth and immigrants, and to increase voter turnout.

“The report came along and a giant light bulb went off,” says Reimer. “We knew that we weren’t going to get people who were disengaged with their community engaged with their government. This was the first kind of case statement, business case, for why we had to do a better job.”

Six years later, the question is: has any of it worked? The foundation began probing the issue with a new, much larger survey launched this summer asking 3,600 residents about their experience of isolation in Vancouver. Results are due to be released in October.

Troubling Signs in Uncertain Times

While isolation itself is a challenging thing to measure, other social ills have undoubtedly gotten worse since the first survey was conducted. In that time, affordability has gone from a concern to a crisis,  homelessness has increased and opioid addiction has become a public health emergency.

In 2011, there were 121 overdose deaths from illicit drugs according to B.C. statistics. By August of this year, 780 (and counting) people were dead from overdoses. The average house price in June 2017 was $1.6 million, up from a measly $937,000 six years ago. The city’s homeless count in 2011 found 2,623 homeless people in Vancouver. This year, there were 3,605—despite a widely publicized campaign by city council to end street homelessness by 2015.

Stories of people picking up stakes to places like Halifax or Ottawa, where they can buy a house, regularly surface in the news.

“If we can’t make people care [about each other], we will never solve the issues of drug addiction, homelessness.”
So, are all those factors symptoms of a greater feeling of disconnection?

“That’s the million dollar question,” says Kemeny. “I’ve heard lots of different answers. People tell us it’s only gotten worse. Others say there’s a lot of things to feel good about. People write love letters to Vancouver saying they’re leaving and talking about the sense of disconnection. They love it here but they’re disconnected.”

Community gardens and yoga in the park help, but they alone aren’t enough to combat a creeping sense of isolation in Vancouver.

Reimer’s theory as to why so many residents feel disconnected goes beyond real estate. In a city where most people come from elsewhere, she’s noticed the common thread is a lack of unconditional love, the kind people receive only from family and lifelong friends. Without that support, it’s scary to reach out to others, she says. In an urban environment, Reimer believes the perception is people think they know each other because everyone lives in close proximity. But because they don’t have close personal relationships with their neighbours, the result is a disengaged population.

That poses a problem for the city, says Reimer. Vancouver can promote itself as a place of truth and reconciliation all it wants, yet racism will continue to exist when people don’t talk to each other, she says. And in extreme weather such as snow storms and flooding, the city can plow roads and clear drains, but it’s up to neighbours to check in on each other and offer help to those in need.

Searching for the Silver Bullet

On a planning level, Reimer says the city can ease social isolation by approving more two- or three-bedroom apartments and fewer bachelor and one-bedroom suites, but floor plans alone won’t solve social disconnection. Nor will community gardens or neighbourhood yoga sessions, Kemeny says.

It’s unclear at this point what exactly will, but she hopes the updated survey will uncover more of the complex factors that influence respondents’ sense of connection to the city—including the impact technology has had on our lives since 2011.

Kemeny suspects the rise of smartphones is playing a big role, recalling a recent interaction that illustrates just how much the way we interact—or don’t—with the people around us has changed in that short span of time. She recently had a conversation with a stranger on the bus, an exceedingly rare occurrence these days, when another passenger noticed she was carrying wrapping paper and asked her about a print she had just purchased.

“We had this lovely conversation and it actually made me feel connected to someone to have this interaction. Plugging in to our phones takes away those opportunities to have superficial but meaningful interaction we used to have on the streets,” she says. “We want to know if plugging in has made it easier for more people to plug out.”

Do you feel like social isolation is getting better or worse? Let us know in the comments below!


Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.