Building Resilience in Cold Vancouver

Policy students from UBC’s MPPGA program and Sciences Po in Paris collaborated in a week long Resilient Cities Policy Challenge with the City of Vancouver to explore how social inclusion and connectedness can foster resiliency in Vancouver and other urban centres.

Not Just a Winter Chill

Feeling like Vancouver is a little cold? And it’s not just the dreary weather? A 2012 study by the Vancouver Foundation confirmed what many people already personally know. People are nice, but metro Vancouver can be a hard place to make meaningful connections.

On the Foundation’s journey to discover what mattered most to people in Vancouver they report:

“What people said concerned them the most was a growing sense of isolation and disconnection. 

They said we live increasingly in silos, separated by ethnicity, culture, language, income, age and even geography. They lamented what they saw as a deepening civic malaise that has resulted in more people retreating from community activities. They said this corrosion of caring and social isolation hurts them personally and hurts their community. 

And they asked us a hard question: How can we begin to tackle complex issues like poverty and homelessness if people are disconnected, isolated and indifferent? How can we make people care about community issues if their concern stops at their front yard?”

These questions are rooted in the intuitive idea that without a sense of shared community we are ill equipped to handle the challenges that will come our way. They point to the desire people have to live in and contribute to communities that can adapt and grow together – communities that are resilient. Where individuals and systems are woven like threads into a carpet that does not easily tear or give way under pressure.

The Substance of Resilience

Theories of resilience are gaining significant traction in a number of sectors. Conceptualizations of resilience have a lot to offer us, and it’s important that as we latch onto this idea of building resiliency, it doesn’t become another policy buzzword.

Resiliency is a well-documented concept in the field of psychology. The American Psychological Association defines it as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress”. It’s being able to draw upon resources that have been developed to live more fully in good times, and engage beneficially with stressors or crisis. This idea can be explored at the individual or community level.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative approaches city environments as a prime starting point to develop resilient systems among populations. They describe Urban Resilience as the “capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”

Our Project

As a crucial component of urban resilience, our teams used strategic policy design processes to explore social connectedness in various population subgroups. Specifically, we investigated how youth, refugees, and seniors experience social inclusion in Vancouver, and how the City and other members of the community can enhance the sense of belonging among people in these groups.

To conduct our work we adopted a flexible, iterative process of Ask, Try, Do.

First, ask. What are the needs, opportunities, strengths, and challenges? Ask the people affiliated with the subgroups we’re focusing on, and engaged them as experts. These people are best situated to design policies that work for them.

Second, try and explore how these ideas can come to life. Who’s involved? What will it take? Is it feasible, innovative, and something that should be prioritized? Can we trial or prototype this idea?

Third, do. Practice and give substance to these ideas, while always pausing to Ask and Try over again. The Do comes down to us all. In this case, the City and other community members.

Here’s a brief snapshot of what each group learned as we engaged in Asking and Trying.

Youth Subgroup
Nathan Seef, UBC

Defining youth as a subgroup is not the simplest of tasks. As a group, we worked on a definition that included people 16-35. Some were concerned that 35 was a bit of a stretch, but given current socioeconomic truths people are delaying many milestones like marriage, owning property, and having kids.

The goal of the youth group was to identify ways to reduce barriers to social inclusion within Vancouver. To that end, we had the chance to talk with several students and members of the community around Vancouver Community College.

Many of those we spoke to mentioned Vancouver’s natural beauty as their favourite aspect of the city. However, financial security was the most common noted barrier to feeling included in the city as most of the youth we spoke to felt unable to participate in many social activities and events due to high cost of living. Beyond that, there was an interesting concern that each experienced Vancouver within a small geographic bubble and rarely reached beyond that space. Several students noted that public transportation could be improved, while others simply didn’t have time to explore the city.

More focus is needed on folding youth into the city and increasing their ability to afford participating in the cultural identity of the city. This can include large, complex interventions that take significant time, but can also be improved through smaller interventions. For instance, the youth group suggested a cultural map of the city that could be interactive and identify art and cultural hotspots in the city. These would be placed in the transit system and would immediately inform youth, and other Vancouverites, of the rich art and culture scene throughout the city. For Vancouver to thrive, there must be a significant effort to foster youth involvement.

Refugees Subgroup
Marc Attallah, UBC

Refugees are a very heterogeneous subgroup of Vancouver’s population, they face different barriers at different stages of settling into Canada. They often progress along the culture shock curve at different speeds. The goal of the Refugee team was to address some of the more universal barriers faced by refugees upon arrival to Canada.

The team had the opportunity to have an informal conversation with two resettlement professionals working at the ISS, both of whom are former refugees. From their personal and professional experiences, they expressed that refugees who arrive in Canada with a debt burden (government assisted refugees receive federal loans to cover medical and travel expenses) are preoccupied with paying off their debt instead of settling into their communities and forming connections. Furthermore, affordability of housing and general financial security are also major barriers for refugees to socially connect. The team aimed to develop a policy idea that could ensure social connectedness and inclusivity while at the same time financially empowering refugees.

Language barriers and the rhetoric of integration, as opposed to inclusion, also create barriers to social connectedness for refugees. More focus should be placed on cultural maintenance and exchange for the benefit of all Canadians. Finally, foreign academic and professional qualifications are often not recognized in Canada, limiting the job and earning opportunities of refugees leading to social exclusion.

Seniors Subgroup
Sarah Froese, UBC

The challenge our team faced this week is how to create opportunities and overcome barriers in order to improve social connectedness among seniors in Vancouver.

Social isolation can lead to adverse health outcomes, mental health problems, a general lower level of happiness, and even mortality. With almost 1.5 elderly Canadians reporting feeling lonely, some experts speak of a true epidemic of isolation and loneliness. And as Vancouver's population of seniors is rising from around 80,000 in 2006 to almost 180,000 in 2031, the city needs to think about how to prevent a deepening of this epidemic, and how to create opportunities for inclusion and empowerment.

Seniors are an incredibly diverse group. Our ideas incorporated considerations for this diversity of vast experiences and lives that seniors bring. Our focus was on specific factors make it more likely that seniors may fall through the cracks, including language, financial exclusion, living alone, physical ability, mental health, and family proximity. However, rather than focusing on tackling a specific risk factor, we have decided to focus on what we believe to be the most fundamental threats to social connectedness.

Through our field experiences at a local community round table discussion and speaking with the director from a neighbourhood seniors centre, our team identified the following areas in need of redress, and some initial ideas of how these could be targeted.

The first threat we have identified is stigma, or a general culture of exclusion of seniors in our society. Because our lives are so individualized and centred around productivity, we have drawn up walls between us, putting seniors at a disadvantage. Social media campaigns are a powerful, grassroots way to bring a diversity of people into this conversation and fight ageism.

Secondly, we realized that while the city has excellent programs, too many seniors fall through the cracks. This is a symptom of the invisible epidemic of isolation - we don't always know where to find socially isolated seniors. Improved data partnerships between those involved with seniors programming can contribute to this identification.

Relatedly, we identified that information regarding programming remains inaccessible to many. Language barriers, overly-generalized information, or challenges with online tools may contribute to the phenomenon. Renewed emphasis on communicating well can make a big difference.

Together, these problems contribute toward a lack of connection between seniors and others in society. Our aim was to generate ideas that would build bonds and bridges in order to overcome these challenges, such as co-housing initiatives and school-senior centre partnerships.

Seniors, neighbourhood centres, caregivers, family, and many others are already doing a lot of good work. By strengthening these initiatives we can work together to ensure the opportunity for everyone in our community to age well.

In conclusion, this explorative dive into resilience and social connectedness in the context of collaborative strategic policy design demonstrates how the desires of Vancouverites to foster a warm, strong, inclusive community can be transformed into concrete actions through intentional and thoughtful engagement. This project is only one tiny contribution to building a resiliency in Vancouver and other cities. However, I believe that these tiny contributions are exactly the kinds of actions that create a fuller society in which we can collectively pursue wellbeing for all people amidst the joys and sorrows of life.

Policy initiatives can do a great deal to bring us all together. But at the end of the day it is up to each of us to build bonds and bridges with those around us. This is how we will overcome social isolation and grow to care for one another in a way that will make us resilient in the face of any challenge.

To learn more about the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative and their City Resilience Framework visit


Written by: Sarah Froese

Having completed her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at the University of Manitoba, Sarah’s perspective in public policy and global affairs is evidenced through her undergraduate thesis, where she investigated intergroup interactions amidst conflict and competing interests. By minoring in Political Studies and participating in various international opportunities including service-learning and a semester abroad, Sarah has actively developed her interest in political structures and how increased mobility and interconnectedness impacts domestic environments. After gaining a passion for practical, well-designed research, her desire to contribute to the evaluation and design of effective and ethical policy has grown. She hopes the skills and understanding gained from interacting with her peers and faculty at UBC, as well as the opportunity for experiential learning offered through the MPPGA program will enable her to contribute to the wellbeing of those in her community both in Canada and internationally.