Tackling the crisis of social disconnection

by Charles Montgomery on

Happy Homes photo collage

Social wellbeing matters. Feelings of belonging and connection to other people and community are essential elements of human health and happiness. People with strong connections to family and friends live, on average, 15 years longer than people who are disconnected. High trust cities report much higher happiness and GDP growth than low trust cities.

Yet modern cities are facing an epidemic of social disconnection that is shortening lives, weakening communities, and costing millions of dollars in health care.

The average American reports being able to confide in fewer than two people in the world. More North Americans are living alone (which is the condition most associated with poor mental health) than ever before. Meanwhile, 20 % of older adults in Canada report feeling lonely. In Vancouver, frequently ranked amongst the world’s most livable cities, young adults, seniors and newcomers all report higher levels of social disconnection.

Design plays a role in mediating this social wellbeing. Happy City’s research has found that multi-family housing design can make or break social connections and trust. City-builders have made big mistakes. For example, some cities attempt to provide affordable housing options by facilitating auto-oriented sprawl. But surveys show that people in auto-dependent communities on the edge of big cities are much less likely to trust or socialize with their neighbours. They are less likely to volunteer or even vote than people who live in walkable cores. Their commutes simply steal their social time.

An equally striking effect has been found at the other end of the density spectrum: Apartment tower residents report lower levels of trust and neighborliness than people in smaller-scale housing. They are the most likely urbanites to report feeling lonely and crowded at the same time.

This presents a challenge for cities dealing with both growth and affordability challenges. How can we accommodate growth and housing affordability in cities in ways that also boost social wellbeing?

With support from BC Housing’s Building Excellence Research & Education Grant, Happy City reviewed dozens of sources of evidence on the link between sociability and design in multi-family housing. We looked to neuroscience, sociology, environmental psychology, architecture and public health. We sourced action ideas from architects, public health professionals and city-builders. Then we rolled these into a visual toolkit that will change the way you think about, design, and build multi-family housing.

Some key insights from the toolkit:

  • • Certain kinds of density are better than others. Social trust and support is higher in buildings where no more than 8-12 households share a main entrance. Cities should focus on “Missing Middle” housing such as townhouses, rowhouses, courtyard apartments, low rises and cohousing.
  • • Residential towers can feel more friendly when they help people regulate their exposure to neighbours. New towers should create semi-private common areas for clusters of not more than 12 households.
  • • Excess parking corrodes social space and boosts the cost of housing. Parking requirements should be reduced or eliminated on properties near frequent transit corridors.
  • • The longer people live in their neighbourhood, the deeper their local connections. But housing unaffordability and instability force people to move. Governments must work with communities and developers to offer more tenure options such as rental opportunities and ownership with public support so people can stay longer in their communities.

Explore the toolkit here.

The toolkit was created with support from BC Housing Building Excellence Research & Education Program, The School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, Mitacs, RNL Design, Museum of Vancouver and dozens of idea contributors.