Is Vancouver lonelier than most cities or just better about addressing it?


The city has launched a series of initiatives to combat social isolation amid polls suggesting one in four residents have grappled with the problem

It has long been rated as one of the worlds most liveable cities. But beyond its dazzling skyline and ocean views, Vancouver has for years struggled with an issue thats rarely featured in any global ranking: loneliness.

Amid polls suggesting one in four Vancouver residents have grappled with social isolation, the city has launched a range of initiatives aimed to combat the problem.

The municipal government entered the fray in 2012 with the launch of the Engaged City taskforce, a working group to tackle the sense of disconnectedness that many residents felt. But when the groups 22 members met for the first time, some of them wondered if the authorities were overstepping their boundaries, said member Mark Busse. We sat around the table going, Are we supposed to make sure everyone is happy?

The roots of the issue lay in a series of surveys carried out by the Vancouver Foundation, a community group that asked 275 charitable organisations and more than 100 community leaders across metro Vancouver to weigh in on the most pressing concerns facing the city.

Few pointed to poverty or homelessness. Instead, leaders detailed a growing sense of isolation among metro Vancouvers 2.4 million residents. It was very surprising, said Lidia Kemeny of the Vancouver Foundation.

The perception was confirmed the following year in a survey of about 3,800 residents. About 25% of those polled said they felt lonely at times, while one in three said they found it hard to make new friends in the city. One man confided that since moving to Vancouver seven years ago for work, he had never once been asked to go out for a beer.

Those who reported feeling most alone were between the ages of 24 and 34.

The findings shocked many in Vancouver. When we first set out to do this research, people kind of rolled their eyes, Kemeny said. But when we released it, we were just totally unprepared for the response that it generated. It really hit a nerve with so many people.

Loneliness and its link to health challenges ranging from depression to high blood pressure was suddenly a topic of conversation across the city. Even something simple, like joining a club or a regular gathering, is as good for your health as quitting a three-pack-a-day smoking habit, said Kemeny, whose foundation hands out small grants to those willing to organise community events, from knitting circles to origami workshops, aimed at bringing people together.

Those who reported feeling most alone were between the ages of 24 and 34. Photograph: Eydis Einarsdottir/Getty Images

Many wondered if Vancouver was lonelier than other cities or just ahead of the curve in addressing the issue.

Some, such as David Beattie, a South African who moved to Vancouver in 1988, are quick to assert that Vancouver is in a class of its own.

Ive lived in six countries on four continents. And its clear that even compared to London, Vancouver is disengaged, Beattie said. People dont call you back, people dont invite you out, they dont make eye contact.

He pointed to a mix of factors to explain the issue, from Vancouvers rainy climate to the high cost of living and the language and cultural barriers that at times spring up among the citys diverse population.

What sets loneliness apart from other social issues, he said, is its seemingly simple fix. How easy is it? you just need two people to communicate, then they both fix each others social isolation.

That realisation prompted the 57-year-old to quit his job in automobile insurance law and launch a grassroots venture in 2014 aimed at sparking conversation between strangers.

Soon after, the Say Hello project which invites residents to wear stickers or buttons that identify themselves as willing conversationalists set up shop in a busy cafe in east Vancouver.

A few times a week for six months, Beattie armed with a stack of flyers explaining the project and sporting a brightly coloured Say Hello lapel pin would sit at a table and do his best to appear approachable.

Some people did strike up a conversation with him. But most kept to themselves. I was surprised at how little progress it made, Beattie said. People are just so shy, theyre so damn shy.

Tackling loneliness, he realised, would take more than flyers and lapel pins. We didnt have enough publicity. You need to have it on TV, its got to be on the radio. People need to understand that this is totally legit and safe.

Beattie now publishes a magazine focused on the citys Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, offering him access to the kind of platform the project was lacking. Im just going to pump it relentlessly until everybody in the bloody downtown Eastside knows about it, he said. And we will have all sorts of events no book party will be safe from the scourge of Say Hello. Well be there, littering the place like confetti with our buttons and stickers. Well wear them down and theyll say, Oh my God, just for some peace, Im going to do it.

Some four years after it was launched as a one-year initiative, the citys Engaged City taskforce also continues.

Weve definitely shifted the dial on exposing something that people didnt want to talk about and let everyone know that the city thinks its their role to participate in breaking down barriers on loneliness, said taskforce member Lyndsay Poaps.

An example is in the realisation that urban planning can engage or isolate, added Busse, and that the scale has often tipped the wrong way in this west coast city. Some of the bylaws, traditions and the way the city deals with its built environment and space isnt very conducive to connections and human connections, he said.

Garage door openers are one such example, allowing residents to enter their homes without ever interacting with neighbours, while condos hand out another in fobs that bar residents from accessing any floor but their own.

The taskforce is a small made-in-Vancouver model on how to confront an issue that is becoming increasingly prevalent in cities around the world, Busse said. How do you make a city jam-packed full of people that love living there and still have connections to nature and still can unplug and still can have those kinds of relationships and the pace that they need? Busse asked. This is chewy problem that we all need to figure out.

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