Social Connectedness and Resiliency: The Vancouver Case

I have lived in Vancouver since I was five. For the first sixteen years I lived here, I never knew any of my neighbours except those directly beside me.  It was not until I took action and organized a neighbourhood block party that I finally got to know more of the neighbours around me.

The weird thing is, there are communities here. People connect online, through sports teams, though unions, through professional associations, and through religious affiliations. Yet throughout most of Vancouver, there is no real conception or resiliency in terms of community here you live. It is as if we have forgotten what community “where you live” means, and why it is extremely important.

What happened to Vancouver’s sense of community?

What is the cause of this deficiency? Are people more individualistic now than they use to be? Has the value of community been eroded? Has the advent of the internet and the expansion of our  digital universe caused more and more of us to live the majority of our lives online? Does this “meta-life” disrupt our former understandings of our physical world? These questions might seem like they elicit the root causes. Yet if one of these were the root cause then we might expect a lack of mechanisms and support for building community.

Vancouver does have support for community events, and mechanisms are in place to help strengthen a greater sense of community in the city. What is critically missing is the willpower, determination, and political drive to facilitate such activities in a meaningful way that relate to community in the geo-proximal sense of the word: the community where you physically live. We have all the pieces in place, but no one seems to be there to put the puzzle together.

I could speculate it has something to do with the forty-hour work week, or the challenges most adults face in balancing work, hobbies, social life, families, and maintenance of everything else they are involved in. It could be after a long day’s work the last thing you want to do is to walk around the block with a clipboard and piece of paper, knock on every door and collect signatures, saying the same thing over and over again: ‘would you be interested in having a community block party?’ Or maybe we are now more sensitive to rejection, and fear the answer ‘no’ over and over again from our fellow neighbours. It could be a confluence of all of these things.

Could block parties be the solution?

Yet regardless of the root cause of this malaise or blasé attitude the majority of citizens in Vancouver, we do have a viable solution. The reality is in our day and age, we need to recognize that ‘community’ is an umbrella term that should be subdivided. Community can manifest in many different ways, so we must be specific in order to best understand what kind of community we’re dealing with, and how it is occurring. We should also recognize community in the geo-proximal sense, has been neglected for many years. This form of community needs to be now more than ever, as more of our lives are lived in the digital realm.

Developing a stronger sense of  community where you live tends to build greater amounts of social capital and resiliency. This, of course, can lead to many benefits for society, including:

  • A more engaged citizenry

  • Neighbourhoods and communities feeling safer because people know each other

  • Communities organizing and having inclusive events

  • Building acquaintances and friendships

  • Creating a broader human support system (asking neighbours for help in many different ways, i.e. asking for sugar; help to move an item, etc.)

  • Many other social benefits that are far-reaching and not always so obvious

All of this can be achieved with a simple mechanism that has been part of our city’s history for a half century or more: the neighbourhood block party. I coordinated and hosted these in the Oakridge neighbourhood area for four years in a row in my early twenties, and I can attest to the power of a simple event that brings people together. This is the type of community that has been in retreat for the past few decades. Yet, it is also the type of community we need in order to be socially vibrant and help us bridge existing intercultural gaps.  

According to reports published in 2011 and 2017 by The Vancouver Foundation, a local NGO, a portion of people in Vancouver still feel isolated, lonely, and disconnected with other people. These feelings are not exclusive to immigrants, the elderly, and youth. Rather, they are found in the population at large. These findings are nothing new to Vancouverites, or at least should not be. More research should go into understanding this problem more comprehensively. We should not wait for the results of such research when a viable solution that does work, has worked, and will work again is right in front of us and is readily available for us to access.

One obstacle to having consistent neighbourhood block parties is finding an organizer willing to do the leg work. As I have witnessed, many neighbourhoods ebb and flow in throwing block parties. Some years they do not have any, and this can stretch for years.  Some neighbourhoods in Vancouver have never had a neighbourhood block party.

Block parties are great way to meet neighbours, form friendships, share stories, as well as great food if you are doing a potluck, while building a community where one lives.  It has been something frequently overlooked but its power should not be underestimated. It is one of the more basic mechanisms we have for community events that are non-commercial and focused on people. It is also a great way to include everyone and begin bridging what intercultural gaps we have. We should see more of these in Vancouver.  Yet who has the time to organize such an event with work, school, family, and the other communities one belongs too? There is a way forward to help further facilitate this process. The question is not can we do it, but rather will we?

There are a few ways that policy could be invoked to create a mechanism that would facilitate more community block parties:

1) Municipal Government Mandate

One solution would be to push for our municipal government to get involved. If a community seems to want to have a block party but cannot because of other social obligations or business, then municipal social planners or community workers could get involved and contribute the ‘leg work’ of organizing a block party.  

2) Community Centre Mandate

Alternatively, community centres could hold neighbourhood block parties that are not commercially-focused and simply about bringing people together and getting to know your neighbours. Community centre workers would be involved in organizing these events. Of course what might be needed in this second solution is for our social planners to enact a policy that would compel community centres to act as legitimate vehicles for community events rather than the events they currently are holding, which tend to be commercially-focused in my opinion.

Vancouver, do we still value community where we live? Or will we continue to be a disconnected, isolated city? Have we all forgotten what it means to know our neighbours and have a greater sense of community where we live? I certainly hope not, and plan to continue organizing neighbourhood block parties where I live. I hope some of you out there will do the same. Maybe together we can advocate for our government to get involved and invest more in community events that serve communities—not commercial interests.

Resources for planning a block party

Guilherme Rosales is a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs student at the University of British Columbia. He has been a wildland firefighter with the BC Wildfire Service for the past five years, a community organizer coordinating neighbourhood block parties from 2011 to 2015 in the Oakridge neighbourhood area of Vancouver, as well as a labour activist and advocate with CUPE 15 and the BCGEU.