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Urban Planning

From a City of Glass to a City of Care

Why is Vancouver so lonely? First in a Tyee series.

Kaitlyn Fung 12 Dec

Kaitlyn Fung is a Tula fellow at The Tyee exploring the different forms that belonging and hope can take.

[Editor’s note: It’s a well-documented fact that Vancouver is a notoriously lonely city. And for some, these pandemic years have only heightened a widely felt sense of social isolation that feels as unique to this city as its mountains-and-ocean beauty. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this special three-part solutions journalism series, The Tyee’s Tula Immersion Journalism Fellow Kaitlyn Fung introduces us to the people who are working behind the scenes to foster connection, community care and a more resilient future in which people are supported by those around them. Be sure to check back with The Tyee this week and next as this series rolls out.]

Community is a feeling to me. Everyone experiences it in their own way — perhaps among family, with friends, or in a particular place. But lately, it feels harder to find here than it used to be.

I often search for community in the neighbourhoods I love. One of my favourite places to find it is in the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood of East Vancouver, in the bustling streets near Joyce-Collingwood SkyTrain station. Bumping into someone I know rarely happens to me in this city, but here I’m often surprised by joyful and spontaneous reunions with a friendly face. The greengrocers and bubble tea shops rival each other for the busiest lineups. Colourful awnings boast signage as multilingual as the chatter on the streets. Tricycles and scooters take over the sidewalks as families head to nearby parks.

Finding companionship with the city’s everyday flow of life reminds me that I’m part of it, too. But I also find myself wishing it wasn’t so easy to forget that I’m not alone in this city.

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Three stacked photos from the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood in Vancouver depict, from top: a colourful collection of plastic step-stools in front of a storefront; a family of two parents and a toddler walking, shot from the back with restaurant signage that reads “Congee Noodle King” in the foreground to the left of the frame; the interior of an eatery in which one person in grey stands at the counter to the left of the frame while a poster board with a red and yellow sign that reads “Opening soon” is lit with sunlight streaming in from the right.
The bright, bustling streets near the Joyce-Collingwood SkyTrain station in Vancouver’s Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood are special spaces of community connection. Photos by Kaitlyn Fung for The Tyee.

As a lifelong Vancouverite, I often wonder: why is it so easy to feel alone here? It seems like a strange question for someone like me to ask. Vancouver is my hometown, and I’m lucky enough to have family and friends who grew up with me here. I’m still navigating young adulthood, too, when opportunities to meet new people are usually easier to come by.

Yet I’m also at an age when people around me are disappearing into the futures they hope to establish, settling down into their own relationships, homes and families. At least, that’s what they’re trying to do. In a city like Vancouver, the work of sustaining even basic needs like housing, financial security and personal well-being can feel almost impossible at times, especially for people living at multiple intersections of precariousness, poverty and chronic health conditions. In a landscape where securing the basics can be an ongoing challenge, mustering the capacity to locate a sense of community is yet another necessity of life that can feel like a luxury lying just out of our reach.

Living through the isolation of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified this feeling for me. Staying at home has kept me safe, but away from moments of connection I’d taken for granted. Last year I attended my first virtual wedding. Hunched over an iPhone screen, my family observed a relative’s funeral. I completed an entire master’s degree without meeting most of my peers beyond our Zoom classrooms.

At a time when I should have been growing further into my own community, I spent the past few years longing for it instead. Now as I enter my late 20s, I struggle to imagine possible futures in a place where my roots don’t feel any deeper.

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Three stacked photos depict scenes from the East Vancouver alleys where Kaitlyn Fung took regular walks throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. From top: an orange persimmon is wrapped in a delicate green mesh bag as it hangs from a branch in a yard with a white house in the background; a plastic purple, red and yellow tricycle sits on the brown wooden roof of a garage; an assortment of potted plants are arranged against a brown wooden fence on makeshift shelves, tables and the steps of a ladder. They are lit by the late afternoon sun coming from the right of the frame. 

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve taken regular mid-afternoon walks in the back alleys near my home in East Vancouver. Those walks are a cherished routine for me; they are sometimes my only solace and opportunity to see signs of life beyond my own home.
 Photos by Kaitlyn Fung for The Tyee.

‘Loneliness is not an individual problem’

Feeling alone in Vancouver is, ironically enough, a shared experience. And it’s not a new one. In 2012, a Vancouver Foundation report made waves for revealing that residents considered social isolation and loneliness the most important issues in the city. Vancouver was later ranked the unhappiest city in the country by a national study in 2015. Loneliness in Vancouver also featured in a week-long series by CBC News in 2018, with a followup one year later.

Today, many people remain as isolated as ever while trying to stay safe. Since entering an era of social distancing, remote work and the avoidance of gatherings, stories about loneliness continue to feature prominently in the public conversation.

Not everyone’s sense of being alone is the same, of course. There are distinctions between the types of “aloneness” people can experience. Technically, social isolation describes a lack of social connections, while loneliness describes feeling alone despite the social connections you may have.

Depending on who you are, you may be more likely to experience social isolation or loneliness. Older men, for example, are often more socially isolated. Meanwhile, the highest levels of loneliness last year were reported by women, younger people, and those not in a marital or common-law relationship, according to a Statistics Canada survey. 

Another study by Angus Reid Institute in 2019 found that social isolation and loneliness were both more likely for anyone who identified as Indigenous, racialized, disabled or LGBTQ2S+. It also determined that those with lower incomes — in the case of the Angus Reid study, annual incomes below $50,000 — are most likely to experience the most severe social isolation and loneliness.

Living in a city where social isolation and loneliness are so prevalent that they’re almost part of Vancouver’s civic identity, it’s hard not to feel like it’s just a part of who I am, too.

Luna Aixin, a Vancouver community planner, artist and equity consultant with GaGiNang Productions, thinks otherwise.

“Loneliness is not an individual problem. It’s so systemic,” they say.

A public discourse that frames loneliness as an individual shortcoming, only “dismisses the collective responsibility for social belonging,” Aixin adds.

Hungry for connection

If loneliness should be understood as a collective responsibility that we work to address as a society, Janet Webber does her best to encourage that as the executive director at SFU Public Square. The organization works across Simon Fraser University’s campuses to convene events and workshops related to public dialogue and community engagement.

SFU Public Square launched the same year as the Vancouver Foundation report on loneliness. Those findings informed much of Public Square’s early work, including its inaugural community summit about isolation and loneliness. Webber agrees that the problem of large-scale loneliness “really comes down to bigger systemic issues.”

She has observed plenty of other efforts to address loneliness in the decade since SFU Public Square launched. Ensuring all residents have “at least four people in their network they can rely on for support in times of need” was a goal of the City of Vancouver’s 2014 Healthy City Strategy.

A second Vancouver Foundation report in 2017 sparked multiple initiatives to address social isolation across the public sector.

That work fostered a “more broad social awareness” of the city’s widespread loneliness, which Webber believes is the main difference now. “Ten years ago when we did this, nobody really was thinking about it or talking about it,” she says.

Vancouver Foundation preceded its report on loneliness through establishing its Neighbourhood Small Grants program in 1999. The program provides grants of up to $500 for anyone who lives in B.C. to carry out their ideas for community-building projects. The ideas that come up in these applications offer a direct glimpse into the sense of connection that people desire. Meseret Taye, former co-ordinator of the Neighbourhood Small Grants program over the past decade, saw it reflected in plenty of projects — community dinners, board game nights, little free libraries. 

She’s since moved on from her role at Vancouver Foundation, but still remembers the most popular idea across the applications.

“The most common one every year, where we get about more than 30 per cent of the projects, is block parties,” says Taye. People across the city want to connect with the others around them, especially in their own neighbourhoods.

Vancouver certainly has the appetite for social connection. But the loneliness that it’s rooted in seems bottomless. TikTok videos about how lonely the city feels can still go viral, even after years of awareness and initiatives to support people.

“Despite all these great initiatives, they're really dealing with the downstream of a much larger systemic issue,” Webber says. “Which to me, frankly, [is] just growing inequality.”

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Two stacked photos illustrated two faces of Vancouver. From top, three glassy condo towers near Science World Skytrain station reflect the sunset to the right of the frame. In the bottom image, discounted clothing (three outdoor vests and two pairs of black pants) is arranged on display outside a working-class storefront in the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood.

Vancouver is home to many initiatives aimed at fostering more meaningful connections between its residents. But growing inequality means such engagement doesn’t work for everyone. Photos by Kaitlyn Fung for The Tyee.

The city is glass in more ways than one

Many might know Vancouver as a “city of glass” from the memorable book of the same name that local author Douglas Coupland published in 2000. The shiny architecture defines the city’s skyline just as much as the mountains. But the city is like glass in more ways than one, including how fragile life can be when shouldering the weight of inequality — something many have to carry alone.

The housing crisis is one of the most glaring forms of socioeconomic inequality in Vancouver. Nearly 40 per cent of the population in the city lives alone, with renters making up over half of all households, based on 2021 census data. And the city is becoming increasingly unaffordable.

Rankings from October 2022 show the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is $2,590. The latest census data shows the median total income, before taxes, each year for a person living alone in Vancouver is $41,600, or about $3,466 monthly. 

If that person is renting a one-bedroom apartment at the average rate, roughly 75 per cent of their income would go towards rent every month. That proportion is considered unaffordable by the Canada Mortage and Housing Corp. and many lower levels of government, who deem housing affordable if it costs less than 30 per cent of one’s gross income.

Navigating such precarious living conditions under the weight of inequality is like constantly trying not to shatter the glass beneath you. If life is too fragile for us to support ourselves, how can we possibly support each other?

In many cases, it leaves people with limited capacity to connect. Or they leave the city altogether.

Lately I seem to part with at least a friend per year as they relocate to places with better work opportunities or even marginally more affordable housing options. Statistics Canada data from 2018 and 2021 shows a trend of people leaving bigger cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver for other regions of the province instead.

Webber notes that all of these conditions only underscore the loneliness of places like Vancouver. “It's a very transient town, we've got massive affordability issues, we've got the housing issue.”

Lasting connections are difficult to maintain, she says, when the reality is “that people are going to leave at any time because they get kicked out of their rental, or they're working two jobs to be able to afford to live in the city.”

Impersonal infrastructure

To some degree, the city literally isn’t built for connection.

As a resident and urban planner in Vancouver, Aixin notices this even in early approaches to the city’s design.

“The first city plan that was ever carved out by Harland Bartholomew was built on segregation,” says Aixin, referring to an American urban planner who facilitated racist policies that repeatedly displaced primarily Black neighbourhoods, including in Vancouver.

“You go back into the history of Vancouver and learn how neighborhoods are segregated by class, by wealth, by access, even by your migrant status — it really became unsurprising for me that we have this kind of isolation.”

Today, physical infrastructure for bringing people together, especially in public spaces, continues to be something Aixin finds the city is “really lacking.”

Vancouver’s characteristic rain was one of the first tip-offs for Aixin, who grew up in Singapore before moving to Vancouver in 2001, trading one rainy climate for another. They were shocked at Vancouver’s lack of rain-friendly outdoor spaces, because “from where I came from in Singapore, I could find shelter like that. It's everywhere, cover canopies everywhere.”

The pandemic brought this gap into sharper focus as the demand for outdoor gathering spaces grew with the need to properly enact social distancing.

Sean Lauer, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, agrees that better “social infrastructure” is needed in Vancouver. He studies community and friendship, which includes examining neighbourhood houses as effective spaces for connection.

Communal settings, like at neighbourhood houses and their programs, often combine many of the key ingredients for social connection. Though it’s not an exact science, he says those elements are valuable to keep in mind, “like a recipe of how [people are] likely to make friends.”

“It involves regular contact, doing that over time. If you can do it regularly over time, it becomes more likely,” says Lauer, adding that it also helps “if you have some kind of focus, on some shared kind of thing that you're doing together.”

This corresponds with the insights of other sociologists, who say the conditions for close friendship generally involve “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”

It’s why more informal forms of social infrastructure are important. Casual public spaces like parks, plazas, libraries, cafés — anywhere “people can come together for interaction,” as Lauer says.

Not all of these spaces guide interaction in ways that offer genuine connection, though. For Aixin, Vancouver’s setting in terms of “public spaces, housing, even being neighbourly, feels very corporatized.”

At times, the city’s architecture can even be considered hostile, as is the case with “defensive architecture” meant to keep people away from particular spaces, both public and private. Oftentimes, these designs are intended to deter specific groups of people from lingering in public spaces, which could be unhoused people or a noisy crowd of teenagers, despite potentially having nowhere else to spend their time.

“We don’t need to be a city of glass,” says Aixin. “I would love for us to be a city of care.”

Lizzy Karp, left, and Emma Devin, right, are seated outside at a picnic table with Lizzy’s scruffy terrier, who Karp is holding to the left of the frame. Karp has short dark hair, is wearing a white button-down shirt with a blue scarf and smiling. Devin has short dark hair and is wearing a black vest over a pumpkin-coloured button-down shirt. Behind them is a white building and other people at picnic tables.
Lizzy Karp, left, met Emma Devin, right, in this parklet off Main Street in Vancouver during the early months of the pandemic, when Karp was pregnant with her son. Their friendship led them to co-found a new doula agency in Vancouver with another friend aimed at reimagining family and bringing people into closer connection with community care networks. Photo by Kaitlyn Fung for The Tyee.

Reimagining care

Reimagining her relationships of care and community is part of what brought Lizzy Karp through one of the most isolating times of her life — navigating pregnancy during the pandemic.

She recalls it being a surreal yet transformative time. At the height of early uncertainty around the coronavirus and concurrent social injustices, Karp learned she was pregnant in May 2020. She remembers it as the weekend right before the murder of George Floyd reignited outrage against police brutality. The desire for community felt sharper amid necessary pandemic isolation.

“I was watching CNN coverage of a march in my hometown, Salt Lake City. I wanted to be in the streets, and I wanted to be there,” she says. “And yet I knew that, in that moment, that wasn't safe for me.”

For Karp, the experience underscored that, aside from her partner, “I was going to go through pregnancy pretty much alone.”

But things shifted when Karp decided to seek out dedicated care from a birth doula, which led her to meet Emma Devin.

After taking the time to connect, Karp and Devin decided to commit to being in each other’s pandemic bubbles and part of each other’s family structures. During such a pivotal yet isolating time, crafting a relationship deliberately centred on care became monumental for both of them — as a source of support with family care, and a sense of wider community.

Realizing how much this community care is needed by other families, this experience led to Karp, Devin and another friend co-founding Brood Care Inc., a “community of doulas, parents and caregivers, redefining the meaning of family.”

Their work often eschews conventional structures of care which centre nuclear, heteronormative family units to operate as one’s primary network of support and connection. For Karp and Devin, committed relationships of care can come from anyone, and being intentional about choosing to form those connections is what matters.

It’s something they felt when they met for the first time, in a parklet near Main Street, while discussing Devin’s long-term involvement as a doula during Karp’s pregnancy. In October, back at that same parklet on the two-year anniversary of their first meeting, I ask them what it means to them now.

“It was so, so deep pandemic, that being even face-to-face at this bench was a big deal,” says Devin. “It was an engagement of relationship in a much more consensual way. In the way that we were like, oh, this is the checkmark to now be bubbled and to engage in sharing space for a minimum of three months. Little did we know, it would just be two years straight.”

There’s a pause and a deep breath before Karp answers. “I'm giving this a beat because it's really special. This is a really special thing to do in any relationship — like friendship, and working relationship, and like a caregiving relationship — to actually treat these days as meaningful.”

When I imagine a city of care, I hope it reflects the same intention and care that’s present in the sense of community that people like Karp and Devin have built in their own relationship, and with others around them. 

Relationships like that are the basis for that vital sense of connection that so many of us seem to be missing. How special would it be if our relationship to the city itself, whether we’re wandering its streets or just trying to figure out our day-to-day lives, could feel like that, too — like community.

It feels more necessary to lean into it now when I think of how terrifying the last few years have been — and how the years ahead might be — for so many of us, myself included. After graduating into a pandemic with considerably bleak forecasts for a stable future in a city like Vancouver, I’m haunted by the question of how my peers and I are supposed to survive. No one wants to face that alone.

What might it look like if we didn’t have to?

Next in the series: a solutions-focused look at care networks already thriving between Vancouver’s Chinatown and Downtown Eastside communities.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Urban Planning

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