Going beyond the norm: Innovative roles for local governments in fostering neighbourly social connections

Lessons learned about local government’s role.

The percentage of residents living in multi-unit housing within BC’s urban centres has increased significantly in recent years; a trend visible in many cities across Canada and the world. Alongside, governments have become interested in reducing loneliness and social isolation and strengthening resilience and collective emergency preparedness in these settings. 

Metro Vancouver’s recently adopted 2050 Regional Growth Strategy calls for member municipalities to create Regional Context Statements that “identify policies and actions that contribute [toward] increased social connectedness in multi-unit housing.” But what might those policies and actions look like?

Local governments already take leading roles in guiding land use and regulating housing development, and can innovate in these areas in many ways to incentivize affordable, diverse and ‘sociably designed’ housing, public spaces and amenities, and foster intergenerational and intercultural social connections. Many practical ideas are discussed, for example, by Happy Cities in their Happy Homes initiative, in the City of North Vancouver’s Active Design Guidelines and during the Living Together Symposium co-hosted by Hey Neighbour Collective.

But beyond influencing physical infrastructures, how else can local governments help foster greater social connectedness – particularly in multi-unit housing? 

The work of Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) and its partners continues to shed light on different, valuable roles that local governments can play, depending on their interests, capacities and resources. An excellent illustration involved the City of Vancouver twelve-month pilot project that gradually coalesced into HNC itself! 

An internal champion can ignite change

Social connectedness was incorporated as one of the primary goals in Vancouver’s 2014 Healthy City Strategy. Social planner Keltie Craig then acted as the local government lead on the “Cultivating Connections” goal. Recognizing the inter-departmental nature and benefits of improved connections, Craig worked to build staff support among other City departments by emphasizing how robust neighbourly social relationships can improve residents’ emergency preparedness, climate resilience, health outcomes, waste reduction, and more. 

Next, with a successful application for a PlanH Social Connectedness grant from BC Healthy Communities and the provincial Ministry of Health, Craig leveraged the grant into more funding and more robust City involvement. Craig hired a program coordinator and they were soon able to launch a Hey Neighbour! pilot program in two multi-unit rental buildings. Through this pilot, they tested a resident-led “animator” approach to strengthening neighbourly connections in the participating buildings. With the support of the building managers and the City coordinator, volunteer resident animators facilitated different social activities such as an outdoor movie night, emergency preparedness workshop, lemonade stand, cooking class, games night, and other events. Two ‘recipe’ books were created at the end of the pilot to guide others who might want to replicate the experiment: one for residents and one for building managers.

Craig also built an advisory committee for the project composed of other organizations and companies that were doing similar work on strengthening social connectedness in multi-unit housing, and an informal community of practice began to emerge among them—a group that would eventually coalesce into Hey Neighbour Collective and find a new home at the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

Lessons learned about local government’s role

In retrospect, Craig believes building a network of internal champions within government is a key step, because local governments often don’t have existing expertise or budgets for social connectedness work. “I think that’s often how innovation happens within the public sector,” says Craig. “It does take someone trying to go above and beyond the norm in order for some sort of change or new ideas to percolate to the surface.”

Of course, a local government may not be able to take on a proactive leadership role in directly delivering a social-connectedness program. So, Craig suggests that one of the most effective and feasible roles for municipal governments is to partner with or help interested landlords, housing operators, residents, or non-profits unlock bureaucratic obstacles to doing social-animation work themselves—topics explored in detail in HNC’s practice guides

Craig advises that municipalities can also help to create enabling environments through actions such as allowing for temporary street closures for multi-unit resident parties or supporting residents to access small grants or equipment for social events. 

Options and possibilities

What else can local governments do? 

They can start by incorporating a focus on equity and social connectedness into their existing policies and strategies. Then, local governments are often well-positioned to convene stakeholder consultations, co-lead research into the community impacts of loneliness and social isolation, or provide supportive expertise or funding boosts to community organizations doing work to reduce isolation. 

One HNC practice guide specifically addresses these and other roles that local governments can play in nurturing community. The guide also describes other local examples, such as the partnership between several municipal governments and the nonprofit Building Resilient Neighbourhoods to deliver the Connect & Prepare emergency preparedness and resilience program, and the City of New Westminster’s leveraging of partnerships with the Seniors Services Society of BC and BC Housing to help improve social connectedness among frail and live-alone seniors. 

To learn more, see HNC’s practice guide, Roles for Local Government in Strengthening Social Connectedness and Resilience Activities in Multi-unit Housing