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A year ago, Vancouver vowed to become friendlier... so how's that going?

It’s been a year since the City of Vancouver created the Engaged City Task Force in a bid to improve civic engagement and fight loneliness — a project that could be a road map for other cities. Metro checks in to see what’s worked, what hasn’t and what they’ve learned.

Danielle Bauer lived in the same West End building surrounded by dozens of neighbours for seven years— yet she often felt alone.

She exchanged polite greetings with floor mates but the dialogue never delved deeper. That changed one Christmas when Bauer decided to break through the wall of isolation and bake and deliver them some cookies.

“It just took someone to break the ice because we’re all sort of isolated in our own little worlds,” she told Metro. “We know there’s more out there but people are nervous that someone is going to think they’re weird.”

Originally from Nanaimo, B.C., Bauer felt a sense of aloofness the moment she moved to Vancouver. Without the established social connections that come with growing up in one place, she realized the city would be a difficult place to make new friends.

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Although she may have felt it, Bauer isn’t alone.

The city has long had been labeled unfriendly, a reputation confirmed in a 2012 Vancouver Foundation survey in which residents reported growing concerns about social isolation.

The city decided to tackle the problem, creating the Engaged City Task Force.

Last January, the task force released recommendations to boost voter turnout, improve community consultation and decrease indifference— with a goal of increasing community engagement and, in turn, helping residents feel less alone.

A year later, many say the problem still persists. Metro checked in with Councillor Andrea Reimer, council liaison to the task force, and Tracy Vaughn, the city’s senior public engagement advisor, to see what worked and what didn’t.

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The most successful task force initiatives were simple. One set up information booths across town and the other invited residents to check out civic facilities.

“It was like a rock concert in here. People were lined up for selfies in the mayor’s chair,” Reimer said of the crowds at Doors Open Vancouver where people connected over shared interests.

“Maybe that won’t be a lifelong friendship, but maybe people will start to say hello on the street corner or the bus. And maybe some of that will transfer to more meaningful relationships.”

But most of the work is behind the scenes. No other city has done anything quite like this, Vaughn said, so Vancouver must pioneer new processes, train staff and measure whether it’s working.

Why did the city get involved in the first place?

At first, the city just wanted to get people more involved in municipal affairs. But Reimer had an “aha moment” when reading the Vancouver Foundation report on social isolation.

“Why would people who are disconnected choose City Hall as their first connection?” she said.

While it may not be the city’s business to meddle in personal relationships and help people make friends, Reimer argues getting people more engaged helps create policy that reflects what residents want.

More people voting means more people have their opinions represented at the decision-making table.

Meaningful connections affect health as much as smoking or drinking, she said. If people don’t engage and look after each other, the state will have to.

Report card on the state of engagement: Metro grades the Engaged City Task Force's efforts to improve civic engagement and combat loneliness. Is this helping social isolation? Bauer isn’t sure.

Report card on the state of engagement: Metro grades the Engaged City Task Force's efforts to improve civic engagement and combat loneliness. Is this helping social isolation? Bauer isn’t sure.

She used networking website MeetUp.com to meet likeminded people but said she still finds interactions outside structured social settings seem superficial.

When she takes her dog to the park, for example, people engage in small talk, “but a lot of those things are really surface,” she said.

“At the end of the day, you go up in your apartment, you close your door and you’re as alone as the next person,” she said.

Reimer agrees, citing the end of World War II, suburbs and long automobile commutes as the start of the “culture of isolation.”

Isolation won’t disappear in a day or a year or even a decade, she said, but the city has to start somewhere.

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Is Vancouver's high cost of living driving social isolation?

Born and raised in Vancouver, Daianna Panni says the city used to feel much friendlier. (Metro)

Born and raised in Vancouver, Daianna Panni says the city used to feel much friendlier. (Metro)

Daianna Panni remembers a time when Vancouver seemed friendlier.

She doesn’t know why that changed, but in recent years, the born-and-raised Vancouverite said a thread became snagged in the social fabric of the city.

“People seem like they’re on guard, like ‘Why are you talking to me? Are you trying to sell me something? Are you trying to pick me up?’” she said. “It used to be a lot friendlier here, but it’s just shaped over time to be more unfriendly.”

A 2012 survey conducted by the Vancouver Foundation confirmed her observation: residents are concerned about a growing sense of isolation in the city and say it is difficult to make new friends here. Asked why that perception persists, however, few can pinpoint why residents of such a warm city can be so downright chilly.

Why is Vancouver so cold? An aloof history

Alden Habacon, director of UBC’s Intercultural Understanding Strategy Development, grew up in Regina where he said the sense of community was much stronger. When his family would move, “the entire church showed up,” he said.

But when he tells that story to friends in Vancouver, the typical response is: “We don’t really do that here. We pay movers.”

Aiden Habacon, director of UBC's Intercultural Understanding Strategy Development, says Vancouver's aloof reputation can be traced back to the city's settlement history. (Courtesy UBC)

Aiden Habacon, director of UBC's Intercultural Understanding Strategy Development, says Vancouver's aloof reputation can be traced back to the city's settlement history. (Courtesy UBC)

That bourgeois attitude, said Habacon, is part of the reason behind Vancouver’s reputation for being unfriendly, and can be traced back to the city’s settlement history.

When Europeans first came to Canada, he said B.C. was the settlement location of choice for people seeking British colonial ideals.

“If you wanted to live out the fantasy of a classist lifestyle where you could have exclusive neighbourhoods, there was a place for you and that was British Columbia,” he said, adding with a laugh: “In fact, they put it in the name.”

That bourgeois attitude has persisted through time, said Habacon, eventually becoming internalized to the point that people here now act aloof without even realizing why.

“We’re playing out the fantasy of being high class,” he said. “It’s deep and it’s historic.”

Are soaring land values and unaffordable housing to blame?

Paul Kershaw, founder of the Generation Squeeze campaign and a professor in the University of B.C.’s school of population health, has a theory.

He believes loneliness in Vancouver, at least for younger residents, is tied to an alarming trend: young people are earning thousands of dollars less than their parents did a generation ago.

Although the problem is Canada-wide, Kershaw said it’s “disproportionately more challenging” in Vancouver, where housing costs are notoriously high.

“This city makes it harder to be a young person than anywhere else on the continent,” he said.

With people moving to more affordable areas, Kershaw said friendships are spread out over large geographic distances. Combined with working longer hours, he said residents struggle to find time to socialize.

Kershaw said the constant struggle to make ends meet in Vancouver sends people into such a low state of mind they start to question if they’ll find success.

“It erodes confidence the moment you start asking that question,” he said. “If you’re eroding confidence … that can definitely erode cheeriness.”

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Through the Engaged City Task Force, the city is taking steps it hopes will ease the crunch on those most affected by high housing prices— namely, renters and newcomers.

One initiative is the Renters Advisory Committee, which will help give residents who don’t own homes a voice at city hall where owners tend to be louder. Tracy Vaughn, the city’s senior engagement planner, said the renters committee is a “fantastic door into sub groups” that will give council a wider decision-making lens.

Other city initiatives include a 3-1-1 smart phone app that gives residents an avenue to complain or ask questions.

The city is also developing a Charter of Roles, Rights and Responsibilities for the planning process to prevent residents from being surprised when condo projects crop up.

It may seem a stretch to connect real estate development with social isolation, but Coun. Andrea Reimer argues citizens feel a sense of inclusion if their voices are heard during community consultations – especially in a diverse city with a wide income gap.

“There’s no land left, so planning discussions are very pointed,” she said. “You can’t just keep trying to have the same discussion.”

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Although she has lived in Vancouver her entire life, Panni said even she has experienced bouts of struggling to make new friends. She turned to social networking websites, where she organizes a brunch group, to expand her social circle.

While she has found success, Panni feels for newcomers to Vancouver who attempt to make new friends but are met with a frosty response.

“If you keep getting rejected, you stop trying,” she said.

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