Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness and social isolation were on the rise.1 Persistent loneliness and isolation are as bad for physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.2 It’s no surprise then that governments like the UK, Japan, U.S., and Australia have recognized loneliness as a public health crisis.
People who are socially connected report better health and happiness, living on average 15 years longer than people who are socially isolated. They are also more resilient in the face of personal and collective crises—a factor that has only become more pressing during the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent extreme heat and flooding in British Columbia.3 4
Many socioeconomic factors can impact the likelihood of someone experiencing chronic loneliness, but the types of homes and neighbourhoods we live in can also greatly influence how socially connected we are. Housing – of all types, tenures and densities – that is thoughtfully designed to foster social connections and where there are intentional ‘programmatic’ efforts to connect neighbours, can be a powerful contributor to personal and collective well-being. Research shows that when people trust their neighbours and interact frequently with them, they report greater happiness, wellbeing, and life satisfaction.
There are great examples of buildings—old and new—that facilitate neighbourly connections, through both innovative design strategies and community-building activities. As BC communities continue to grow and densify, it is essential that all housing providers can access the policies and tools they need to build homes where neighbours can get to know each other, fostering greater health, happiness, and resilience in the long run.
Homes have the power to connect people
Happy Cities and Hey Neighbour Collective are two BC-based organizations that are working together towards a future where people’s homes help to connect them with one another. Along with partners at Simon Fraser University’s faculties of Urban Studies, Gerontology, and Health Sciences, we collaborate with housing providers and non-profit organizations that are working to build social connectedness and resilience, helping to measure success and share promising practices.
We also host cross-sectoral dialogues to share what we’re learning and explore how to scale solutions, like our recent Living Together symposium. During the symposium, participants from many disciplines—housing operators (market and non-market), architects, municipal planners, funders, non-profits, researchers, public health experts, and more—worked together to create a “roadmap” that charts the path to a future where designing sociable multi-unit housing is the easy, obvious choice.
A roadmap for mainstreaming social connectedness in multi-unit housing
This roadmap embodies much of the work that we are doing with our various partners. We are early in the journey and eager for broader engagement with the housing sector going forward.
At the Living Together symposium, industry professionals came together to discuss solutions for mainstreaming social connectedness in multi-unit housing. Photos by Tim Wang.
Why social connectedness matters in rental buildings
When people know their neighbours better, it benefits both landlords and tenants. Socially connected tenants can lean on each other for mutual support, not only during acute collective crises, but for the everyday personal and family crises that hit us all. This is good for residents of course, but can also make the job of a building manager easier. Happier tenants complain less to their landlords, and are more likely to resolve issues or disagreements among themselves and in a non-confrontational way. Further, when people have stronger social connections and a sense of community within their building, it decreases turnover, reducing the amount of effort landlords must invest in listing and showing units to prospective tenants.
Landlords may imagine that intentionally building community among residents in their buildings involves a lot of extra, time-consuming work. However, this is not necessarily true. For example, community partnerships can facilitate social programming initiatives, while design interventions at the drawing stage can support organic, self-sustaining social interactions between neighbours.
Building successful social programming for residents
Above all, many effective initiatives are relatively easy to implement, and can be championed by tenants themselves. When people have the ability to influence their surroundings, they are more likely to take responsibility over caring for and maintaining shared spaces, their unit, and the property overall.
Over many years, we have learned from our partners’ efforts in this space, seeing real-world examples of how homes really can make people healthier and happier. Our research further draws inspiration from community housing movements, like co-operative housing and co-housing, which offer relevant lessons on how purpose-built rental communities can cultivate social connections and resilience through intentional design and programming.
Below, we outline broad actions landlords can take to support social connections among neighbours—and some of the support needed at a policy level to make this the easy choice.
Strategies for socially connected rental housing
Our research shows that the first six months to one year of living in a new building is a critical period for establishing relationships with neighbours. The good news is that there are easy solutions to encourage social connection and reduce loneliness among a building’s residents. We’ve broken these examples down into three broad categories, from easiest-to-implement, to bigger but highly impactful design and policy changes.
1. Low-hanging fruit: Encourage residents to animate and personalize existing spaces within the building
Landlords can make the most of existing building spaces that people pass through frequently—such as lobbies and corridors—by implementing low-cost design elements that encourage social interaction. For example, at the Athlete’s Village Co-op in Vancouver, each resident that moves in receives a canvas to paint and display in the building’s lobby, instilling a sense of community and belonging. These small-scale, resident-led interventions—which can also include message boards and opportunities for residents to hang art, photos, or plants—pique interest and encourage people to stop and linger, thereby increasing opportunities for neighbours to bump into one another and start a conversation.
Parking spots are another often-overlooked area that residents can take the lead on repurposing into shared social spaces. Metro Vancouver estimates that 35 to 42 per cent of parking spaces in the average apartment building are underused, making these spots ripe for transformation.5
2. Next-level solutions: Encourage and support social activities among residents
Social programming requires some investment, but is an effective way to build community and increase tenant engagement. For example, Concert Properties recently created a “Community Connectors” program, in which it supported tenants (who volunteer with modest financial honoraria) to organize building activities, practice open communication, and strengthen relationships between neighbours.
Other rental buildings organize social activities to support and engage older adults—who are often at higher risk of social isolation—or bring neighbours together to plan for emergencies and build mutual support systems. While housing staff lead some of these programs, many emerge through partnerships with community organizations that have specialized expertise, like Building Resilient Neighbourhoods’ Connect & Prepare program, run in partnership with the City of Victoria’s emergency readiness team.
3. Go big or go home: Consider innovative design approaches for new residential buildings
Several rental developers are recognizing the benefits of social connectedness and are showcasing innovative design approaches. Vienna House, an exciting new affordable rental project planned in Vancouver that is pursuing Passive House certification, features a central courtyard to maximize ventilation and natural lighting while increasing opportunities for social connection. Residents will access their units through exterior walkways that face onto the common courtyard, connecting corridors and unit entrances visually with public spaces.
The City of North Vancouver has recently incentivized this type of social and sustainable design through its Active Design Guidelines, which provide a Floor Space Ratio (FSR) exemption for exterior walkways, ensuring that social features don’t take away from ‘saleable’ area.
Recognizing that people in walkable, transit-oriented neighbourhoods often don’t need or want to own cars, a growing number of developers—both for-profit and non-profit—are advocating for reduced parking requirements in new buildings. (In Metro Vancouver, on-site parking can add around $20,000 to $45,000 per stall to a building’s overall cost, plus maintenance, but many of these spaces go unused.) Instead of devoting precious resources and square footage to parking, creative developers are integrating shared amenities—like music rooms, bike fixing, or dog washing stations—that encourage neighbours to explore common interests and activities.
Join the conversation
Whether your organization is already a social connectedness champion, just getting started, or merely curious, we’d love to connect and learn more about your work and experiences so far.
- Cigna, “Loneliness and the Workplace: 2020 U.S Report” (Cigna, January 2020), https://www.cigna.com/static/www-cigna-com/docs/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/cigna-2020-loneliness-report.pdf; Jean M. Twenge et al., “Worldwide Increases in Adolescent Loneliness,” Journal of Adolescence 93, no. 1 (December 2021): 257–69, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2021.06.006.
- Julianne Holt-Lunstad, “The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk Factors,” Public Policy & Aging Report 27, no. 4 (December 30, 2017): 127–30, https://doi.org/10.1093/ppar/prx030.
- Kasley Killam, “Lessons from COVID-19: Improving Social Health to Build Community Resilience,” American Society on Aging Generations 46, no. 2 (2022): 1–11.
- Sarah B. Henderson et al., “Analysis of Community Deaths during the Catastrophic 2021 Heat Dome: Early Evidence to Inform the Public Health Response during Subsequent Events in Greater Vancouver, Canada,” Environmental Epidemiology 6, no. 1 (February 2022): e189, https://doi.org/10.1097/EE9.0000000000000189.
- Raymond Kan, “2018 Regional Parking Study – Key Findings” (Vancouver: Metro Vancouver Regional District Housing Committee, May 1, 2019), meeting notes (PDF).