Feeling closer on the Arbutus Greenway: A conversation on Social Connectedness

In 2012, a Vancouver Foundation survey asked Vancouverites what they cared about the most. One out of four people said they felt lonely and disconnected from others more often than they’d like, and that loneliness was linked to poorer health. As a city that prides itself on being one of the best places to live, a lot of Vancouverites are missing a sense of social connectedness and belonging. This is a common issue in many North American cities; but the question is, can we improve this through the way our city is designed? How can city policies shape or affect our built environment?

What is social connectedness and why is it important to our health and well-being?

Social connectedness is a broad term representing the many ways we connect to others emotionally, behaviourally, and physically. It can refer to our objective connections (for example, how often you interact with your friends and family, or engage in your community) and the feeling or satisfaction that we get from our connections, like our sense of community belonging or trust in others.

Social connectedness impacts our health and well-being in different ways. At an individual level, people who are more socially connected are at lower risk of premature mortality and are less likely to experience health conditions such as obesity, anxiety, and depression. It can also help us to gain better self-esteem and empathy, creating a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being. At a community level, higher levels of trust and social participation have also been linked to better mental and physical health.

Why look at the Arbutus Greenway?

In 2016, the City of Vancouver purchased the Arbutus Corridor from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to create a greenway. The Arbutus Greenway now serves as a north-south active transportation corridor connecting people, parks, and places from False Creek to the Fraser River. In addition to providing safe, active, and accessible ways of getting around, the city is also looking at opportunities on the greenway to encourage social interactions and improve Vancouverites’ sense of belonging. One of the main intentions of the new design vision is to create more people-friendly public spaces on the greenway. These city plans and policies will continue to shape the greenway’s physical characteristics in the upcoming years.

City plans and polices on Social Connectedness and the Arbutus Greenway

Although the Arbutus Greenway has been on the City’s radar since 1995, only recently has the idea of social connectedness been part of the conversation. We looked at city plans and policies to see how they may have influenced the development of the Arbutus Greenway, and how they shaped the public conversation on social connectedness.

Plans and policies around Social Connectedness and the Arbutus Greenway

Over time, there has been a subtle shift in the City’s narrative around social connectedness. In the first Greenway Plan (1995), there was no focus on any social aspects of greenways; rather the plan focused on the physical environment. The Transportation 2040 plan (2012) was the first city-wide plan to connect active transportation, health, and social connectedness. It marks the first time the term was first explicitly mentioned in a city document. In this plan, social connectedness was framed as a side benefit of walking, but did not get a lot of priority. The narrative shifted in the Healthy City Strategy (2014), with the conversation on connectedness moving into a spotlight as a stand-alone priority and highlighted as a major focus area with a long-term goal. In the Healthy City Strategy, social connectedness is valued for both its critical impact on physical health and mental well-being. This shift in narrative can be seen through subsequent plans. Particularly, the guidelines and design characteristics in the Arbutus Greenway Design Vision (2018) center around creating more public gathering space for social connections. Although the framing of social connectedness has changed over time and become increasingly important, there is still the need to raise awareness on the contribution of social connectedness to health and well-being.

Narrative around Social Connectedness in plans and policies related to the Arbutus Greenway

What is INTERACT data telling us about Social Connectedness?

In summer 2018, INTERACT collected data on over 300 local residents living within 3 km of the Arbutus Greenway. Our survey was designed to capture the different dimensions of social connectedness. One of the survey questions asked people “How often do you feel isolated from others?” while another asked, “How would you describe your sense of belonging to your local community?

From our data results, the majority (60.1%) of the participants said that they hardly ever feel isolated from others. Additionally, 59.5% reported having somewhat strong to very strong sense of belonging to their local community. This shows that six in ten participants reflected a higher level of social connectedness based on these two questions. However, four in ten of the participants still reported feeling isolated or lack a sense of belonging to their local community. As we continue with the INTERACT study over the next 3 years, we hope to unpack the role that a greenway development can have in supporting social connectedness.

Moving forward with Social Connectedness

During the greenway public engagement process, people brought up various factors related to social connectedness. Everyone seems to have a different understanding of social connectedness. It is often discussed as a neighbourhood/community trait rather than an individual experience. With the hope that Arbutus Greenway attracts visitors from across the Lower Mainland, how can we balance enhancing social connectedness within local neighbourhoods versus at a regional level? Will the greenway development only affect local residents, or can it impact people within and outside of the city of Vancouver? These are all questions that INTERACT is interested in exploring as we move forward.

To learn more about the INTERACT Study in Vancouver, visit: www.teaminteract.ca

Stella Zhou holds a Master’s of Community and Regional Planning Student from the School of Regional and Community Planning at the University of British Columbia.

CIHR-funded research team harnessing big data to deliver public health intelligence on the influence of urban form on health, well-being, and equity.