By Mark Carras
City planners and sustainable development practitioners often advocate for creating dense urban areas as a component of developing more sustainable cities. They cite studies that indicate the reduced costs and environmental benefits achieved through energy efficiency, possibilities for improving public transit, and the reduction of urban sprawl. In Vancouver, Canada, a city consistently rated one of the most liveable in the world, and with a stated goal of being the greenest city in the world by 2020, a dense urban growth strategy has been incorporated into their sustainable development plans. But is this dense urban development positive for the community at large?
A 2012 report released by the non-profit organization, Vancouver Foundation, suggests that dense urban areas may not be working for certain groups of Vancouver residents. This report was a follow up to a 2011 poll that revealed Vancouverites’ top social concern in the city being a lack of connection; a surprising result given the city’s visible challenges dealing with homelessness and drug abuse. A 2012 follow up survey and report revealed that some of the contributing factors to this lack of connection in Vancouver are dense high-rise apartment life-styles, our fast-paced modern society, and citizens’ general lack of interest in getting to know one another. The study reported that 25% of young people feel lonely more often than they like, and a lack of connection and engagement was attributed to poorer health. In response, the City of Vancouver, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Foundation, and everyday citizens have been coming together to learn how to they can help create community and connection in a Vancouver on its path to sustainability.
Vancouver Foundation 2012 Survey: Connections and Engagement
The Vancouver Foundation survey, Connections and Engagement (available here), surveyed a diverse cross section of 3,841 residents of Metro Vancouver, examining people’s connections with friends, neighbours and the community at large. The survey found:
- 25% of the city’s residents feel alone more often than they would like
- 33% find it difficult to make new friends
- People living in higher density dwellings, people renting, and 25-34 year olds reported higher rates of loneliness, disconnection, and a lack of knowledge about their neighbours than home owners.
The survey also linked people’s lack of connection to the community with a lack of civic engagement. This appears troubling not only from a health perspective (as studies have shown loneliness can lead to a variety of life-shortening physical and mental health effects), but also because a united and engaged community has been shown to have a greater ability to affect positive change and communicate and advocate its needs to civic leaders.
City of Vancouver’s Response
From 2009 to 2011, Vancouver City Council consulted with over 35,000 Vancouver residents and 170 organizations in the creation of the city’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. According to Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer, this extensive public consultation process is the largest of its kind ever undertaken by the City of Vancouver.
Urban densification is listed, among other green initiatives such as green building, improved public transit, and compost collection, as a building block of the city’s greenest city strategy. The findings released by the Vancouver Foundation point to the importance and benefits of addressing urban isolation and urban densification planning simultaneously. Ms. Reimer believes that the city can and should help to create community connection and civic engagement, and in an October 2012 city council meeting, Reimer proposed a motion to assemble a citizen’s task force charged with examining what is working, what needs improvement and what is missing in civic engagement in Vancouver. The ‘Engaged City Task Force’ motion passed, and the task force will be composed of 22 citizens, Ms. Reimer and Mayor Gregor Robertson.
Being passionate about active civic engagement and participative democracy, Reimer believes it is important for the city to take a role in helping to facilitate community connections and engagement. “You’re hard pressed to find an example of a high functioning democracy that does not have a high level of citizen engagement,” she says.
Addressing criticisms of City Council taking a role in helping to create community and address urban isolation, Reimer notes that helping facilitate citizen and community engagement fits in well with the city’s mandate. “The safest and most resilient neighbourhoods are where people know each other’s names and where residents see each other and get together,” says Reimer, “These are the neighbourhoods where people are the most trusting and able to work together to tackle issues of concern.”
She additionally pointed to numerous studies that have demonstrated a positive correlation between strong social connections and an individual’s state of health and well-being. This same correlation is echoed in the Vancouver Foundation report, which connected loneliness to an overall lower state of health. But still, when it comes down to creating a truly sustainable city, Reimer believes that it depends on individual and collective action. “We can provide bike lanes, compost services, and high speed transit. We can try to provide these opportunities, but ultimately it’s up to you to do it.”
Vancouver Foundation and Simon Fraser University’s Community Summit
Simon Fraser University (SFU) partnered with the Vancouver Foundation and put on its inaugural SFU Public Square Community Summit titled Alone Together: Connecting in the City, from September 18th to September 23rd, 2012.
“This was our inaugural Community Summit”, says Shauna Sylvester, Executive Director of the SFU Public Square. “We hosted eleven events in six days that explored how to strengthen engagement across communities and cultural divides and how to develop strategies to overcome civic disconnection in Metro Vancouver. Among other things, this six day long September community summit included presentations from the former Chief Planner for the City of Vancouver, a youth conference, community discussion panels, artistic displays and performances, and events providing opportunities for the public to discuss and engage with issues pertaining to urban isolation with city politicians, business people and policy makers.”
Eric Brown, former Youth Led Development Officer for Sustainable Cities International (SCI), was a part of the team that organized this Community Summit’s youth conference. Commenting on youth and urban isolation, Brown said, “Youth also experience isolation but in different ways.” He continued to explain that the youth component of this inaugural event was intended to educate youth around the idea of urban isolation, to help facilitate youth connections, and to work with youth to find out what solutions would work to engage young people and help mitigate effects of urban isolation. Speaking to SFU’s Public Square program and the involvement of SCI, Brown noted, “SFU Public Square was established to facilitate dialogue on issues of public concern and Sustainable Cities was interested in supporting this initiative to tackle important issues like community connection and engagement, particularly among youth.”
UN study Advocates for Urban Density
A recent UN Cities and Biodiversity Report (available here) forecasts a continued migration into urban centres and a global urban population reaching 4.9 billion in 2030; a 40% increase over 2010’s urban population level.
The report expressly mentions the importance of coordinating the voices of elected officials, businesses, and citizens to meet the challenges of rapid urban population growth, and spoke highly of the economic and ecological benefits of maintaining strong regions of biodiversity in and around existing urban areas. Its authors further noted, “Urban expansion and habitat fragmentation are rapidly transforming critical habitats … of value for the conservation of biodiversity across the globe.”
The report lends insight to the importance of developing urban areas in a sustainable manner that recognizes and protects these economic and ecological benefits, and highlighted urban density as a strategy with knock on benefits of protecting prime agricultural land and helping to minimize threats to biodiversity from the encroachment of urban development.
The City of Vancouver, like many cities around the world, is planning for and encouraging a denser urban population, a strategy that is in line with numerous studies and population reports, and that is being employed to help meet its sustainability goals. However, being consistently rated one of the most liveable cities in the world has not made Vancouver immune to the effects of urban isolation, and the well publicized Vancouver Foundation survey appears to have sparked a collective action in Vancouver. Many sectors and citizens have come together to engage with each other, develop a deeper understanding of how to create connections, and understand the social impacts of urban design and denser communities. And people are talking about it.
The City of Vancouver’s reaction to the Vancouver Foundation survey has been to create dialogue between citizens and develop a deeper understanding of how to connect, engage, and create community in the city, resulting in the city’s Engaged City Task Force. The Vancouver Foundation and SFU have partnered to launch the Public Square initiative. Even bus drivers are getting into the swing of things, with Vancouver bus driver, Brian Revel, encouraging social interaction on his routes and organizing, “Say ‘Hi’ on the Bus” days.
Cities can be encouraged and inspired to work together, like Vancouver, to understand and manage urban isolation and to create community. Engaging citizens and businesses in discussions to inform decision making and public and private initiatives is a great start, and Vancouver is an example of a city learning to do just that. Local government and inter-sectoral partnerships have helped to facilitate that process, engage citizens in dialogue, and learn how to create healthy, vibrant communities; citizens, like Brian Revel, can help by stepping up and creating community within their own circles of influence.
Vancouver is a city planning for sustainable development, growth, and community, and is a case study that can be learned from. After all, wouldn’t we all like someone to say, “Hi,” to us on the bus?
Note: Following the link for Vancouver Foundation’s Connections and Engagement survey you will find a series of mini-reports listed below the main report link that break out areas of the survey that in greater detail including, “The Effect of Apartment Living on Neighbourliness”