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Health report says that Vancouverites don’t feel connected to their communities

The data provides useful information for city and neighbourhood planning

Ruth Hartnup / Flickr
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Reported by Kirsten Clarke

Almost half of Vancouver’s residents don’t feel very connected to their city, don’t have a strong group of friends they can rely on and report more mood and anxiety disorders than Metro Vancouver on average.

That’s what researchers found when they went out to assess the health of the Lower Mainland and province’s population, asking residents how they would describe their sense of belonging, and how many people they have in their network to rely on.

Health officials say those results are key to understanding the relationship between social connection and health.

“Those in our community that are socially isolated have a 50-per-cent increased risk of all-cause mortality,” said regional epidemiologist Ellen Demlow. That’s a more negative effect than obesity or smoking 20 cigarettes per day.

People who are highly socially connected have a 50-per-cent increased chance of longevity, said Demlow, who presented the survey at Friday’s Metro Vancouver regional planning committee meeting, with the aim of helping directors understand the importance of social connection and social cohesion in local community planning.

The survey found that Bowen Island, the North Shore and Delta ranked the highest in terms of social connection, while people’s sense of community belonging in the majority of Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond fell below average.

Only 54 per cent of Vancouver residents feel a connection to their community, landing below the regional average of 56 per cent.

People with high social connections, said Demlow, have stronger immunity, lower rates of anxiety and depression, and greater self-esteem.

The survey also found that projects that directly affect the landscape of a community can be extremely beneficial to someone’s sense of belonging, Demlow said. If there were parks and walking trails in their community, people reported a higher level of social connection. But if people saw others using those public spaces, that connection grew stronger.

The authority’s survey received 33,000 responses when it was sent out in 2013 and 2014. About 15,000 of those were within the boundaries of Vancouver Coastal Health.

“If you’re struggling and you’re feeling disconnected, that’s a huge deal just to feel part of a neighbourhood and a community regardless of how long you’ve been there.”

Neal Lamontagne, Vancouver city planner

One local organization has seen the difference that community belonging makes.

“What I have seen, again and again, is someone who’s feeling lonely, comes here, makes connections, makes friends and they seem pretty happy. It does seem to make a huge difference in their lives,” said Jennifer Gray-Grant, executive director at Collingwood Neighbourhood House.

Collingwood has established a reputation as the neighbourhood house that works to give residents the ability to improve their neighbourhood culturally, socially and physically, said Gray-Grant. Groups have planted gardens together, hosted block parties and come together to make button blankets. Inter-generational groups, with members aged eight to 80, have learned and practised knitting together.

“It’s through those small discussions and projects that people begin to make a friend and get a sense of belonging in their neighbourhood,” said Gray-Grant.

The importance of community belonging, with data to back it up, is becoming an increasingly important factor in city planning, said Neal Lamontagne, a Vancouver city planner.

It’s only in the past five or 10 years, said Lamontagne, that mental health has played a part in the community-planning process.

Lamontagne wants to make communities that encourage interaction. Even casual social links, like waving to your neighbour, or recognizing someone at your local grocery store, are important.

“If you’re struggling and you’re feeling disconnected, that’s a huge deal just to feel part of a neighbourhood and a community regardless of how long you’ve been there,” he said.

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