Solitude and the City: Building Connections in Urban Canada

While our urban centres continue to grow in population, more and more city-dwellers are expressing feelings of disconnection and isolation. As we emerge from COVID-19, how will we contend with the social, cultural, and mental health ramifications for our cities? How can we make Canada’s big cities feel less lonely? Join us for a timely discussion on urban loneliness, and how to build connection and community inside Canada’s bustling city centres. This CityTalk touches on the themes explored in the GOETHE FILMS @ digital TIFF screenings of “Loneliness in the City,” a series on urban absence and aspiration.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. Building dense living environments leads to social connectedness

We must rethink urban design and look beyond public spaces to build close connections with the wider community. Paty Rios, housing expert and research lead at Happy City in Vancouver tells us that multi-unit housing developments and changed living circumstances can capture social connectedness and bring people together. She believes that in designing and planning our city buildings differently, we can enable accidental encounters. These encounters will foster belonging and attachment to help combat isolation and loneliness. Paty says, “We have put all of our eggs in public space as our only basket.” Multi-family housing and denser cities can solve urban isolation and loneliness while addressing affordability issues. Cities can amplify the voices of vulnerable populations and underrepresented minorities by involving them in the co-creation process. It also allows city builders to create spaces that allow for intimate encounters with neighbours and the larger community.

2. The newcomer experience and loneliness

“Newcomers will feel like a stranger in a new city,” says Shadi Shami, Success Mindset Coach and steering committee member of the Together Project in Mississauga. Shadi advises newcomers who experience loneliness and isolation to acknowledge those feelings and act because loneliness can impact our physical and mental well-being. Lucenia Ortiz, a retired urban planner and board member of Multicultural Health Brokers in Edmonton says that the loneliness and isolation newcomers experience can be viewed in three realities:

  • newcomers experiencing inequities when striving for a better life
  • their desire for belonging in a new homeland
  • experiencing unfilled dreams and expectations

Newcomers look for social connections to combat these feelings of loneliness and isolation. Diane Dyson, senior director, research and engagement at the Canadian Urban Institute says it’s vital for newcomers establish loose and close connections within their ethnic enclaves in order to survive. Lucenia agrees, mentioning political scientist Robert Putnam’s work on social capital. She says, “The first link is called bonding social capital which is our connection within our family and our familiar communities.”

3. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated loneliness and isolation in cities

“The pandemic definitely has amplified these feelings of isolation and loneliness,” said Lucenia. The emergency lockdown measures in Canadian cities has led to the disruption of social connections. To mitigate the social disruptions, we see community members working hard to foster a sense of belonging and social connectedness in their neighbourhoods. Paty notes the musicians playing in their front yards, people appropriating the green space between the sidewalk and the street for gardening and using their rooftops for small gatherings, as ways to overcome loneliness and social isolation. The pandemic has also encouraged people to seize spaces in the city that aren’t very useful and put something dynamic in them. These spaces can help build resilience in cities and help individuals tackle urban isolation and loneliness.

4. Dynamic urban policies help build social connections

“At a policy level, there are a couple kinds of connections that people need to have,” says Diane. People need to have close bond connections, for instance, someone to call at 3:00 a.m. if they need to. They also need looser connections, such as connections to their neighbours or people they pass on the elevator. Diane elaborates, that the theme of belonging is an important consideration for policymakers as they think through built form. “In Canada, policies are actually one of the big barriers,” says Paty. She conducted a study called Design to Engage where six big moves were identified to bring people closer together through the design of multi-unit housing. Paty questioned various community stakeholders including planners, architects, designers and developers about their inability to implement these big moves and 80 percent of them said that “It’s a policy thing.” Paty acknowledges that policies do take time, so we need to identify the low hanging fruit and start working on them. She also highlights the importance of pushing for new, dynamic policies that help build social connections moving forward.

5. Neighbourhoods are our final destination

We need to look at our neighbourhoods and see what we can do better to build connections. Lucenia says, “It’s in neighbourhoods, our village, a safe space where we can be ourselves and feel a sense of community.” She advocates for more inclusive neighbourhoods and designing neighbourhoods that meet the evolving needs of everyone in the community. Lucenia points to immigrants living in multigenerational households to make her case. She says that in young families, it is grandmas that watch the kids and bring them to the playground, however, not all playgrounds are designed to meet the needs of grandmas. They don’t have benches or other amenities that can help facillitate connections and reduce loneliness. We need to listen to the needs of our community. Diane says, “My plea is that we think about changing the built form so that people can live there at different life stages.” It is important that people feel connected to their neighbourhoods, so they aren’t left feeling lonely and isolated. According to Paty, evidence shows that “…people who are connected can live up to 15 years more, they can overcome cancer more easily, they are less likely to have a heart attack and they are more likely to participate in community events and be an active part of the community life and political life of a city.”