How does housing density really affect life in cities?

Review of research reveals six key factors that determine ‘social quality of life’ in high density environments.

Canada is simultaneously experiencing a severe housing crisis and – like many other countries – a crisis of increasing loneliness and social isolation. Intervening to tackle loneliness and social isolation within the housing system presents many opportunities, but we need all hands on deck: policy makers, governments, developers, architects, property managers, community organizations, residents and researchers all have a role to play.

The need and the plan to create more housing, particularly more community-oriented housing in higher density forms, is clearly reflected in Canada’s National Housing Strategy, which describes affordable housing as “a cornerstone of sustainable, inclusive communities and a Canadian economy where we can prosper and thrive.”

Our Federal Government is also beginning to acknowledge the issue of loneliness, social isolation and related ‘social quality of life’ issues. One such acknowledgement was a 2021 call by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for research on Canada’s ‘emerging asocial society,’ part of the broader Imaging Canada’s Future initiative. 

In response to this call, Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) researchers, Mohammadjavad Nouri, Meg Holden, Meridith Sones, Meghan Winters, and Atiya Mahmood, synthesized a large body of international literature in this area into a report to summarize research, identify knowledge gaps, and recommend policy priorities.

The full report illustrates how interconnected demographic, socioeconomic, household, individual and personality characteristics, intersect with governance, built environment design, and housing status, structure, and management to shape social quality of life.

Six key factors are integral to high density developments that support social quality of life and community wellbeing:

  1. Individual and household characteristics
  2. Personality, agency and attitude
  3. Social comparison and distinction 
  4. Housing status and structure
  5. Governance of high-density built environments
  6. Design of the built environment

Read the robust details related to each factor in the full report.

Summary of factors that influence social quality of life in high-density built environments

The authors’ evidence-informed policy recommendations and next steps for research chart a course for action towards greater social quality of life and community wellbeing in Canadian cities. 

Policy recommendations

  1. Mainstream a pro-social policy approach, acknowledging that social isolation and loneliness impede progress on policy goals related to housing, health, immigration, labour, equity and diversity, inclusion, complete communities, transportation, and civic participation.
  2. Affirm the significant roles that government, private and non-government actors can play, across multiple policy sectors, to design and govern high-density communities, provide a range of housing types and tenures, reduce negative social comparisons and distinctions and otherwise support social quality of life amidst the growing diversity of communities.
  3. Implement different policy approaches that are suited to needs at different scales from the individual and household, to buildings and their indoor and outdoor spaces, to neighbourhood, citywide, and to objectives at higher orders of government.
  4. Ensure policy adequately reflects the dimensions of diversity that shape pro-social housing outcomes including: health, mobility, immigrant status, age, employment, gender, socioeconomic status, race and class.
  5. Design and promote new forms of tenant tenure security, such as long-term leases, community-based affordable housing, and controls on market rental systems.
  6. Refine and revise social mixing strategies to generate better outcomes for lower-income households and for social cohesion.

Future research recommendations

  1. More Canadian research is needed to understand and effectively intervene for better social quality of life in high-density environments, to support rapidly growing Canadian communities. The international research that forms the basis of this review is instructive but interpretation and translation to Canadian contexts can be difficult. Across contexts, there is a wide variability of definitions and expectations, even when it comes to core concepts like measures of high-density and the components of sociability and a high social quality of life. 
  2. Time use and time management research is needed that investigates the pervasive sense of loss of time for socialization at home. 
  3. Indigenous experiences and needs related to culturally-supportive high-density housing must be further investigated. 
  4. The specific conditions and needs related to gender-inclusive home and shared spaces, and for the LGBTQ2S+ community in particular, demand research. 
  5. Climate change and climate emergencies create new vulnerabilities and needs for social connections that research must specifically address. 
  6. Long-term implications for social quality of life from the widespread social isolation imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic deserve dedicated study.

In conclusion, it is time to stop asking whether higher-density home communities in Canada will bring decreases in quality of life compared to the suburban cul de sac expectations of past generations, and time to intensify our work to provide for adequate social quality of life within high-density environments. Promoting and planning for neighbourly social connections in high-density environments can make a significant contribution to housing, health, and social policy goals that will counter the trends of isolation and loneliness. 

Full report available open access: Nouri, Mohammadjavad, Holden, Meg, Sones, Meridith, Winters, Meghan, and Mahmood, Atiya. Knowledge Synthesis for the Emerging Asocial Society: Social Quality of Life in High-density Built Environments. Simon Fraser University. November, 2022: