On October 4th, 2023, Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) and Happy Cities hosted the webinar Housing That Connects Us: The health and climate rationale for intergenerational ‘sociable’ design, part of a year-long Building Social Connections project in partnership with Simon Fraser University’s Gerontology department.
Over the next year, Building Social Connections will bring six Metro Vancouver jurisdictions together to co-create new design policies to support wellbeing for residents in multi-unit housing. This work builds upon a nugget in Metro 2050 – Metro Vancouver’s newly-approved regional growth strategy – that instructs member jurisdictions to show how their local ‘policies and actions’ will lead to ‘increased social connectedness in multi-unit housing’ (page 72) as part of Metro 2050’s broader goals to ensure that new, denser housing contributes to happier, healthier communities for all.
Happy Cities and HNC have collected substantial evidence on design and programming strategies to inform inclusive, ‘sociable’ housing policy at the municipal level to build community, neighbourly connections and resilience. How can these findings be put into practice in a time of polycrisis – affordability, housing, climate change, growing equity, loneliness, etc – and how can we collaborate across sectors to mainstream these practices?
With over 270 registrants signed up to the webinar who joined us for a lively discussion, it soon became clear that this is a topic that resonates across a wide spectrum of our society. Participant backgrounds included housing operators (for profit and non-profit), architecture and/or planning organizations, municipalities and other government bodies, health sector organizations, community organizations, universities, and multi-unit housing residents.
Here is a round-up from the webinar, including a video, slides and other resources, along with a snapshot of a few of the most notable excerpts from our invigorating conversation.
Michelle Hoar, Project Director for Hey Neighbour Collective, moderated the webinar and got the proceedings rolling by introducing the HNC model, which brings landlords, housing operators, non-profits, researchers, governments, housing associations and health authorities and multi-unit housing residents together to build social connectedness, resilience, and capacity for neighbourly support and mutual aid. Learn more:
- Evidence Backgrounder – How social connectedness between neighbours supports health and well-being
- Discussion paper by HNC – for Metro 2050 Regional Growth Strategy consultations: Developing Truly Complete Communities: Social equity, social connectedness, and multi-unit housing in an age of public health and climate crises
- Practice guides by HNC – written specifically for residents, landlords and housing operators, non-profit organizations and municipal governments:
- Supporting residents to become community connectors in multi-unit housing
- Landlord and housing operator-led approaches to growing community in multi-unit housing
- Developing organizational partnerships to build community in multi-unit housing
- Roles for local government in strengthening social connectedness and resilience activities in multi-unit housing
- Videos by HNC – 5-minute bite-sized looks into key topics:
Laura Chow, Senior Planner with Vancouver Coastal Health’s Healthy Environments & Climate Change team, spoke about Vancouver Coastal Health’s current work on physical, environmental, social and economic determinants of health in relation to climate resilience. Laura shared case studies, including deaths during the 2021 BC ‘heat dome’ and the coming-together of Duwamish River Community Coalition in Seattle, which provide examples of how community-led, place-based solutions to social connectedness can quite literally save lives.
- Report: My Health, My Community (PDF) – results and recommendations from Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health’s survey of tens of thousands of British Columbians, outlining how positive changes in social and built environments can help mitigate worrisome health trends.
- Diagram: The science of social connection on Standford School of Medicine’s Center for Compassion And Altruism Research And Education website by Dr. Emma Seppaa
- Local Government Action Guide (PDF): Social Connectedness by PlanH with the BC Healthy Communities Society
- Primer: Social Connectedness by PlanH
Video: Making the Connections by PlanH
Madeleine Herbert, Senior Housing Specialist with Happy Cities, shared the story of Tomo House as an example of how intentional communities can build social connections through multi-unit housing design, policy and programming. Madeleine additionally shared other kinds of Happy Cities research on how to create built environments that nourish all. Learn more:
- Interactive toolkit: Happy Homes: Building sociability through multi-family housing design
- Report: Designed to Engage: Policy recommendations for promoting sociability in multi-family housing design (PDF)
- Blog series: Learning from community housing movements: Six principles for building happier homes
- Video: Tomo House – a new co-housing community in Vancouver
- Project: Happy Cities Happy Neighbours
The webinar then progressed into a Q&A moderated by Hey Neighbour’s social media coordinator, Ryan Cope. This fostered an enlightening discussion between speakers and participants, informed by the everyday realities, concerns, and activities of all involved.
Here are a few memorable quotes from the conversation:
“One of the challenges I see is how to work *across* these silos and jurisdictions – healthcare, housing, community, planning, municipal, provincial, and federal!”Daniela
“Independence and autonomy are different concepts, and the goal should be autonomy. Independence disconnects us from others and stops us feeling responsible for anyone except ourselves. Autonomy means we govern our actions and make our own decisions, but have a constant connection and responsibility to others and to give back whenever possible.”Stephanie
“I think for many people, work IS our social network. But what happens when we retire? Personally, I’m afraid of it. I know that I’ll lose most of my social connections.”Emily
“I agree that we need to recognize that we fundamentally need other people – and we are “inter-dependent” with others.”Sue
“More and more we need housing design which is *intentionally* intergenerational. For me, we’re all aging all the time, from the minute we are born, so the more our housing can accommodate us throughout our lives, the longer we’ll stay.”Michelle
“I think the daycare planning is essential for the well-being of the residents and economically more beneficial, as mothers and fathers can work. I find it interesting how the system of daycares located accordingly to the population needs has not been arranged, as, for example, it is in Europe. Hopefully, the change is coming soon.”Olena
“A shared meal can do miracles…”Annelise
“We need to start a movement of inclusive community building across Canada! This webinar is a good start :)”Sue
Here are a few final questions for our speakers, hand-picked from the participants’ chat.
Q: Has there been any consideration for creating adult-day programs to support Aging in the Right Place?
Michelle: If the question is whether we are considering this idea in our ‘sociable design’ workshops with local governments, then yes! We will be talking about best practices for incorporating common spaces, amenities and accessible design that support aging in place. Housing that is designed in this way then acts as a very literal foundation for intentional programming that can further support people. (And also, we are all aging; housing that supports older people to age in place is also great for people of all ages all along their life course.)
There are numerous good examples of aging in place programming within ‘independent’ housing contexts. You could read about how Brightside Community Homes Foundation, West End Seniors’ Network and Seniors Services Society of BC (all Hey Neighbour Collective partners) have been innovating in this space. WholeWay House does amazing work in a number of non-profit housing communities. Oasis is a model out of Ontario – now being trialed in a few sites in BC – that engages residents in NORCs (‘naturally occurring retirement communities) to lead their own efforts with support from a trained coordinator who can also connect them with supports and services in their community. Also out of Ontario is the NORC Innovation Centre and their NORC Ambassadors program, which offers a slightly different resident-engaged model for aging in place (and which offers a wealth of ideas for those wanting to get going themselves.)
Q: Is there scope for HNC to go to property managers’ staff meetings and/or trainings to seed acceptance and offer learning?
Michelle: We would certainly consider that. We are a small team, but that is work that very much fits with our Theory of Change. We do a lot of outreach and education in the housing sector, often in collaboration with HNC partners BC Non-Profit Housing Association and LandlordBC. We are also hoping to increase our capacity (read, fundraising required) so that we can support a community of practice model where we could offer learning AND support peer learning amongst a larger group of property managers and housing operators.
Q: What were the age demographics of the participants from the survey?
Madeleine: Our North Vancouver Active Design Guidelines survey got responses from people of all ages: 18-29 (19%), 30-39 (36%), 40-49 (14%), 50-59 (12%), 60-69 (13%), 70-79 (5%), 80+ (1%).
Our My home, My Neighbourhood wellbeing study (with VCH) we got responses from people of all ages as well: 18-29 (13%), 30-39 (20%), 40-49 (14%), 50-59 (18%), 60-69 (20%), 70-79 (13%), 80+ (2%)
Where possible, we use age and other demographic factors to compare responses, for example, whether there are any wellbeing or social connection trends across demographics. Both of these reports will be released before the end of the year and will include demographic information.
Q: I’m curious how social connection is defined and perceived in this work. I don’t want to overgeneralize, but it seems like folks who grew up with the internet are less connected in the physical environments where they live because their communities are often online.
Laura: This is a good one! We’ve used two indicators to describe social connectedness in the MyHealthMyCommunity work:
- Perception of community belonging,
- Number of people you can confide in, tell your problems to, or call when you really need help. You can read more about the outcomes of that work, here.
For sure, screen time has played a role in our ability to connect with one another, but we also know that our environments haven’t been super supportive in enabling people to get away from their screens. When we talk about social connections, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have many best friends, but rather, that you’re familiar enough with people to know who they are and can participate in a community activity with others without feeling like everyone is a stranger. Being able to say hello and put some faces to names could help people to feel seen in a community, rather than one of many. These readings by PlanH explain more about it: Local government action guide: Social connectedness (PDF) and primer on social connectedness (web).
Q: Are there any research/resources that support the case for the creation of more “community hubs” by non-profits that combine affordable rental housing with spaces for a non-profit’s administrative, programming and services and community amenities?
Michelle: Great question. I can’t think of one central repository for this but I can think of a lot of individuals and organizations doing work in this area (especially in and around Vancouver where I live.) I think of Catalyst Community Developments Society, another HNC partner, and how they have worked with a number of municipalities, non-profits and faith organizations to develop affordable housing that often includes amenities for their land-owner partners (like refurbished churches and community spaces with housing above like this one in Vancouver and this one Langley.) Then there are exciting future projects like this collaboration between Community Land Trust BC, City of Vancouver, McLaren Housing Society and QMunity. I also think about this incredible future project on the site of the Urban Native Youth Association’s vibrant but aging community space, which is a beautiful collaboration between them, Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and the City of Vancouver.
Madeleine: This PDF resource from United Way Greater Toronto may also be helpful, which looks into programs and policies that work for building inclusive communities.
Q: When’s your next session?
Michelle: We are currently planning another Housing That Connects Us webinar on November 9th – stay tuned for that. And HNC has a whole workshop on November 21st at Housing Central, which is a three-day annual conference in Vancouver that brings together non-market housing folks from all over BC, organized by BC Non-Profit Housing Association, Aboriginal Housing Management Association and Cooperative Housing Federation of BC.
You can also check out a whole bunch of HNC videos – mostly past webinars – on our youtube channel. Lots of great content there.
Thank you to our sponsors
This project received funding from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the views expressed are those of the author and CMHC accepts no responsibility for them.