A community of strangers Social isolation has far-reaching effects on us and our neighbours, survey

'Lack of connectedness' the issue Metro Vancouver residents worry about the most

Jamie Shafer has jogged in cities all over North America, but when he laced up his running shoes to tackle West Vancouver's seawall for the first time, he noticed something distinctly different about running in this city.

Shafer said everywhere else he's run, including big cities such as Toronto and Miami, joggers greet each other in some way - a nod, a smile, a thumbs-up.

"In Vancouver ... it's noticeably absent," he said. "If you simply wave ... they almost move away from you."

Talk to people in Metro Vancouver about their interactions with others, and similar stories abound. Newcomers to the city talk about going weeks without anyone offering to show them around or invite them for dinner. Apartment dwellers talk about distrusting their neighbours to the extent that they're afraid to let their children play unsupervised outside.

A survey conducted by the Vancouver Foundation and released today found Metro Vancouver residents feel increasingly estranged from their friends, their neighbours and their communities.

When the Vancouver Foundation conducted a smaller survey last year aimed at pinpointing the issue Metro residents are most concerned about, staff were surprised to find that this lack of connection beat out homelessness, drug abuse and affordability, said Catherine Clement, the foundation's vice-president of public engagement.

In an effort to determine the scale of the problem, the Vancouver Foundation polled just over 3,800 people by telephone and online about their social interactions and published the results in a survey entitled Connections and Engagement.

Much of the news is good. Most people reported having close friends they see fairly regularly and talking to their neighbours once a week or more. Most also reported feeling they belong in their communities and that their neighbourhood would welcome all ethnic groups equally. A majority of people said they do not experience discrimination in their day-to-day lives.

However, some troubling trends emerged.

One in four respondents reported feeling alone more often than they would like and one-third said they consider Vancouver a difficult place to make friends.

Most people don't socialize with their neighbours and almost one-third of respondents said they have little interest in getting to know them.

About half don't volunteer in their communities and most people feel that while diversity is generally a good thing, most still prefer to be with others from their own ethnic group.

Affordability factored heavily in the survey results, with roughly equal numbers of people reporting living comfortably and finding it difficult to get by.

Significantly, more than half of respondents agreed that Vancouver is becoming a resort town for the wealthy and that there is too much foreign ownership of real estate. This view was particularly common among people aged 25-34, a group whose responses to many survey questions revealed a marked cynicism about the state of their communities compared with other age groups.

It is important to pay attention to these results because the strength of the connections between people and groups in a society is ultimately a measure of its resilience, said Clement.

"In examples where you see people become more insulated, it makes it very difficult to address bigger issues that affect the entire community because people's interest doesn't go beyond their front yard or ... beyond their block or their immediate group," she said, giving homelessness, bullying and housing affordability as examples. Criminologists have also found that neighbourhoods where people know each other tend to have lower crime rates.

Bob Cowin spoke about losing a sense of connection with his neighbours over the years. Cowin moved into a new subdivision in Coquitlam in the mid-'80s where the developer had landscaped the front yards, but the backyards were nothing but mud. Neighbours got to know each other creating their back gardens and building the retaining walls that were necessary because most properties backed onto a mountain slope. "Swinging a sledge hammer and dashing down to the local building supplies store for a different drill bit resulted not only in walls but also relationships," Cowin wrote in an email.

A year after the retaining walls were finished, Cowin noticed a new kind of wall going up: cedar fences between properties that made the neighbourly conversations that used to happen over the fence impossible.

A burst of young children brought the adults in the community together in a different way, forming childminding co-ops and walking school buses, Cowin recalled. The elementary school became a social hub, and the neighbourhood held yearly block parties.

Then the children started middle school and didn't need their parents as much, he said.

"The street was extended, and the sense of a local place disappeared. Houses started being sold, and a different, and increasingly multicultural, demographic moved in."

Cowin feels the increasing ethnic diversity was a mixed blessing for his neighbourhood.

"It has been great for our kids, who, thanks in large measure to the schools, have developed a tolerance and intercultural competence that I admire," he said. "For the adults, language and other barriers have made it tougher. My new neighbours are still fine people, but it takes more effort and intentionality to maintain relationships."

The ultimate test of community resilience is a natural disaster, Clement said. Societies tend to either pull together, as did the communities in Sri Lanka affected by the 2004 tsunami, or unravel, as was the case in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, she said.

"It's what was there before that disaster that really made the difference to how citizens reacted," Clement said, noting that the B.C. coast is due for a major earthquake in the coming years.

Social isolation also has welldocumented health effects. A 2007 study by the University of California at Los Angeles found that loneliness weakens the immune system and makes people more vulnerable to disease. University of Chicago researchers linked loneliness with high blood pressure in 2006, and a 2009 American Academy of Neurology study found that people who are socially active are less likely to get dementia. Simply joining a club is as good for your health as quitting smoking, exercising or losing weight, the Vancouver Foundation report said, citing U.S. research.

The Vancouver Foundation data also show a significant link between feeling alone and fragile health, according to an analysis of the results conducted by Adam DiPaula of Sentis Research. More than half - 54 per cent - of people who said they felt alone more often than they like also reported being in fair or poor health, compared with 27 per cent of people who do not feel alone.

People who reported feeling alone are most likely to be between the ages of 25 and 34, single, living alone in an apartment and experiencing financial strain, according to the Sentis analysis.

They are also more likely to have negative views of their neighbourhoods and communities in general, DiPaula said, noting that the results reveal a distinct hardening of attitudes toward others among those who report feeling most isolated. They were more likely to agree that those who live here but don't speak English don't try hard enough to be part of the community, that there is too much foreign ownership of real estate, and that Vancouver is becoming a resort town for the wealthy.

The results show that feeling alone is more than just an individual problem, but one that has ripple effects throughout neighbourhoods and communities, said the Vancouver Foundation's Clement.

"It doesn't just affect their immediate feeling of, 'I'm alone.' It starts to infect how they feel about the larger community that they're a part of," she said. "We ignore those feelings at our detriment."

Coquitlam resident Cowin said that while it is necessary to have relationships with others based on shared interests and values, it may not be enough.

"I'm increasingly thinking that these relationships need to be complemented with people who we encounter regularly on an ad hoc basis and with whom we share a robust network of mutual acquaintances," he said.

"I've lost some of that 'village' over the past decade."


Percentage who agree that those who live here but don't speak English do not try hard enough to be part of the community:

Percentage who agree that there is too much foreign ownership of real estate here:

Percentage who agree that Vancouver is becoming a resort town for the wealthy:

Here are wordles of the anonymous answers to the open-ended question of what would improve your community. Wordles generate "word clouds" from text, giving greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.

Q. What is the one thing about your neighbourhood that you wish was different?


Part 1: A growing sense of disconnection


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