Being socially connected can help us live longer and healthier lives, yet many Canadians report being disconnected from others and their communities. As Canada continues to urbanize and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, how can we transform cities to improve social connectedness — and ultimately health?
Improving social connectedness is a common policy goal of local governments, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Major investments in sustainable transportation, compact neighbourhoods, parks and other public spaces have the potential to shape how we connect and engage, but there are many unanswered questions when it comes to designing sociable cities: How do we define and measure social connectedness in urban health research and policy? Do changes in our environment actually lead to changes in our social interactions, sense of belonging, and community engagement? Who is using and benefiting from social infrastructure? How have local amenities like parks and public space helped us stay distant – but not disconnected – during the pandemic?
INTERACT is tackling these and other big questions to better understand the link between urban environments, social connectedness, and health. Using a combination of traditional and map-based surveys, social network tools, and qualitative interviews, INTERACT’s ongoing cohort studies are evaluating how built environment interventions in Canadian cities influence social connectedness and related inequities over time. With baseline data that predates the COVID-19 pandemic, INTERACT has one of the best datasets in the country through which to test the real-time effectiveness of neighbourhood built environments in facilitating social connectedness and community resilience during the public health emergency.
A primer on social connectedness
Despite increased policy attention locally and globally, the concept of social connectedness is not consistently defined or measured in health and urban planning research. These inconsistencies create confusion for urban planners and city decision-makers looking for guidance on how to understand, monitor, and improve social connectedness.
Recognizing the need for conceptual clarity, INTERACT developed a primer that unpacks the meaning, measurement, causes, and consequences of social connectedness in cities. Drawing from the latest urban planning and health research, the primer includes:
- A pragmatic framework of key definitions and metrics for social connectedness that can be used to inform future research, policy, and evaluation in cities.
- A model illustrating potential pathways between neighbourhood environments, social connectedness, and health.
- A discussion on challenges and opportunities for studying social connectedness in cities, and implications for policy.
Measuring Social Connectedness
While definitions vary, INTERACT uses social connectedness as an umbrella term for the many ways we connect emotionally and physically — both as individuals and communities (Holt-Lunstad 2017). Instead of relying on a single indicator of social connectedness, INTERACT uses a combination of measures that capture different aspects of our relationships, interactions, and social environments that are known to have an effect on our overall health and wellbeing.
Staying distant, but not disconnected?
Throughout 2021, we asked 1166 of INTERACT participants to report on different aspects of their social connectedness in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Below is a snapshot of what we learned. By comparing these results to INTERACT’s pre-pandemic data, we can uncover who was impacted most and whether neighbourhood features — like access to parks and walkability — helped to mitigate social isolation and promote resilience during pandemic restrictions
Felt they had a strong sense of belonging to their community
knew 4+ people with whom they could discuss important matters with
chatted with a neighbour at least once a week
Connecting on the Arbutus Greenway
For her capstone research, Stella Zhou (graduate student in UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning) conducted a planning analysis on social connectedness and the Arbutus Greenway. The capstone study examines how social connectedness figured into policies, planning documents, and public consultations related to the Greenway. It also uses data from INTERACT Vancouver — collected from a cohort of people living along the Greenway — to explore the level of social connectedness among nearby residents.
More than ‘just a walk’
INTERACT’s Callista Ottoni led a thematic analysis of older adults’ experiences of safety and social connectedness while walking on the Arbutus Greenway in Vancouver, BC. Participants shared how the greenway is more than just a place for recreation, but also a social outlet.
“Anytime [my wife] and I have gone on walks on the Arbutus Greenway, you meet up with people that say hello. Whether they’re walking towards you or walking by you, hi, how are you today? Or even the cyclists. It’s opened up a whole new avenue of leisure for people and opened up paths of communication.“- Howard, 68 years
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