City planning expands to include issues of social isolation


In 2011 Vancouver Foundation polled 275 charitable foundations and 100 community leaders to find out what their most pressing issue was. Much to their surprise, the top issue wasn’t poverty or homelessness—it was isolation and disconnection. Subsequently, in 2012 the Foundation surveyed 3,841 people across metro Vancouver to measure people’s connections and engagement.


Vancouver Foundation’s survey sought to measure how connected and engaged residents are in metro Vancouver and what prevents people from being more connected and engaged. Connection is defined as our relationship with others and the strength of those relationships. Engagement describes our commitment to community and willingness to participate and take actions to better our community.

The 2012 report identified the following:

  • Metro Vancouver can be a hard place to make friends
  • Our neighbourhood connects are cordial, but week
  • Many people are retreating from community life
  • There are limits to how people see diversity as an opportunity forge meaningful connections
  • The affordability issue in metro Vancouver is affecting people’s attitudes and beliefs

The results of the survey raised a hard question that is related to the future of planning and development in Vancouver: “How can we begin to tackle complex issues like poverty and homelessness if people are disconnected, isolated and indifferent? How can we make people care about community issues if their concern stops at their front yard?” “If the neighbourhood is critical for community building, what urban form could facilitate greater interactions to build and strengthen connections?”


In 2011, Vancouver Foundation led a public consultation process with community leaders and non-profit organizations that asked what community issue concerned them most and where the Foundation should focus resources to have a greater community impact. The issue that most people said was growing isolation and disconnection. While we are living in a diverse city, we are increasingly living in silos separated by ethnicity, culture, income, age, and even geography. The people consulted felt that creating bridges between various communities would be an ideal area of work for Vancouver Foundation.

This led the Vancouver Foundation to conduct the 2012 survey. The goal of which was to measure how residents are experiencing life in metro Vancouver right now, how we can strengthen our community, and what are the gaps and areas to help people connect and engage.

Five Years Later

While the issue of social isolation may not be new, the survey and publication have created much discussion and dialogue. Many media outlets, local and national, wrote on the issue.


Vancouver Foundation allocated funding for initiatives to encourage greater social connections, such as neighbourhood cleanup and community kitchens. Furthermore, the publication of report has since influenced several policies. For instance, the Healthy City Strategy identifies social isolation as a challenge with goals aimed at improving wellbeing. In particular, Cultivating Connection is one of the 13 goals in the Strategy. A Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force (2012-2014) was formed to examine how to increase neighbourhood engagement and improve the ways the City connects with residents. A current major planning project, Places for People Downtown, has as its goal to create and improve public spaces to bring community together.

Vancouver Foundation followed the 2012 survey with a second in 2017 to dig deeper and to look closer at opportunities for actions. The findings reveal that few (less than 1 in 5 residents) experience loneliness often and the majority have someone to depend on. That said, younger people and those living in low-income households are more likely to experience weaker social connections. The survey also reveal that residents are less active in community life today compared to 5 years ago. In terms of opportunities, events such as social gatherings and festivals, and community projects have been popular ways for neighbours to get to know one another. This second report prompts further questions for planning. For example, does the lack of affordability and financial stress mean younger people and people in low-income households have less time for friends and neighbours?