What is the role of planners in fostering pro-social communities?

A critical perspective in housing affordability and choices that are key to quality of life.

In the face of an emerging asocial society1, urban and community planners are challenged to promote social connections and combat social isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the already growing rates of loneliness and isolation globally. However, to shift our collective gaze from challenges to opportunities, we authored  “How can planners bend the curve towards pro-social communities?”. Published in the Canadian Institute of Planners (Plan Canada) magazine, we discussed the importance of sociability in urban planning, particularly within higher-density environments, and explored the role of planners in fostering social connections.

Read the full article

Holden, M., Lee, R., Emami, S. (2023). Planners’ role in bending the curve of the emerging asocial society. Plan Canada, Spring issue, pages 20-24.

The article features findings from the Hey Neighbour Collective’s (HNC) / SFU urban studies research where we surveyed 1036 residents across 25 community housing buildings in BC, over two years (2020-2022). Our research produced valuable insights into resident social dynamics and connectedness, neighbourly ties, and personal health. Importantly, it revealed residents’ interest in becoming more connected with their neighbours. 

The focus of the spring 2023 edition of the Plan Canada Magazine was the ways that planners can address “Housing Affordability and Choices that are Key to Quality of Life” in the context of Canada’s nationwide housing crisis2. As such, our article lends an important perspective to this topic, based on residents’ lived-experiences. 

Here is a glimpse of what you can find in the article.

The changing social landscape and impact on higher density living

Social distancing measures during the pandemic reshaped social life. But even prior to the pandemic, researchers noted growing concerns about increasing asocial phenomena, such as social isolation and loneliness. This is particularly pronounced for higher-density environments, where the risks of social isolation are heightened. Apartment dwellers in Canadian cities like Metro Vancouver are comprised of a diverse range of people at different stages in life – but in general, they are more likely to be older adults, immigrants, live alone, rent, and/or experience unemployment.

Surveys conducted during the pandemic revealed a significantly increased sense of social isolation among apartment dwellers. This emphasizes the need for proactive measures to promote sociability in high-density communities.

A pro-social approach to planning

Planners have a crucial role to play in addressing the social quality of life in higher-density built environments. Adopting a pro-social approach involves applying a sociability lens to various aspects of planning, including housing, neighbourhood design, infrastructure choices, resident engagement, and programming. Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy, for instance, places emphasis on social connections as a key component of complete community goals, particularly in multi-unit housing3. Research and tools that examine the relationship between social equity, social quality of life, and planning can inform equitable implementation of a social connections goal, regionally.

Design considerations that enhance social connections among different demographics, such as older adults, children, and immigrants, are gaining attention. Strategies like the City of Toronto’s “Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities” highlight the importance of building design, infrastructure, programming, and mobility in enhancing the social lives of families in higher-density living4. Additionally, quality programming and initiatives such as the Township of Langley’s Social Sustainability Strategy (PDF)5 and the Neighbour to Neighbour program in Saanich6 demonstrate some of the ways municipalities are taking up neighbourhood social connections in their planning work.

The Hey Neighbour Collective: a collaborative effort as the way forward

HNC represents a collaborative effort to promote pro-social planning and action. Through partnerships with social and health services, housing providers, research institutions and municipalities, HNC offers a robust, cross-cutting and action-oriented approach towards the issue of social isolation. Efforts like HNC have shown promise, especially in translating experiences and research findings into opportunities for policy advocacy or practitioner-focused practice guides. Combating an increasingly asocial society requires a multi-faceted approach. 

As the world struggles with changing social dynamics and long-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, planners have a crucial role in shaping pro-social communities. By adopting an equitable sociability lens in planning decisions, focusing on diverse housing options, engaging residents, and promoting social connections, planners can create environments that foster a sense of belonging and combat social isolation.

Recent successes of the Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) and a willingness from municipalities and housing providers to form partnerships, demonstrate the potential for collaborative efforts to make a positive impact. Ultimately, fostering sociability in the built environment requires a comprehensive approach that addresses structural inequalities and recognizes the vital role of housing in fostering social connections.


  1. Knowledge Synthesis Grants: Emerging Asocial Society, December 2021 Competition
  2. Plan Canada, Spring 2023: Housing Affordability and Choices.
  3. Practice Guide #4: Roles for Local Government in Strengthening Social Connectedness and Resilience Activities in Multi-unit Housing
  4. City of Toronto. 2020. Growing Up: Planning for children in new vertical communities. Toronto. https://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2020/ph/bgrd/backgroundfile-148361.pdf 
  5.  Township of Langley. 2022. Social Sustainability Strategy. Langley, BC. https://www.tol.ca/en/the-township/resources/social-sustainability/social-sustainability-strategy/Social-Sustainability-Strategy.pdf
  6. Municipality of Saanich. 2022. Neighbour to Neighbour Resilience Initiative. Saanich, BC. https://www.saanich.ca/EN/main/community/neighbour-to-neighbour-project.html