Social Connection: Understanding the impacts

In the last six years, two local studies have both found that many citizens of the Lower Mainland experience loneliness and isolation. Social isolation is a serious health risk in communities; in fact, engaging in a social activity such as joining a club can reduce a persons’ chance of death by 50% in the first year—the same impact as quitting smoking.[1]

Fortunately, there are ways that local government can improve social connections among community members. Earlier this year, BC Healthy Communities hosted a webinar with 5 speakers offering information, ideas and resources to help you enhance social connectedness in your community. Lidia Kemeny of the Vancouver Foundation and Julianne King, Research Intern, presented key findings from the organization’s 2017 Connect and Engage survey, Ellen Demlow and Dr. Mark Lysyshyn of Vancouver Coastal Health detailed the insights from their new My Health My Community Social Connections and Health Report, and BC Healthy Communities’ own Victoria Barr outlined the Social Well-being section of the newly revised Healthy Built Environment Linkages Toolkit, created by Provincial Health Services Authority and the BC Healthy Built Environment Alliance.

Vancouver Foundation’s Surprise – Connect and Engage

In 2011, the Vancouver Foundation surveyed 106 community leaders and 276 non-profits to discover where the Foundation should focus its energy and ideas. The results surprised them: while leaders and non-profits still discussed poverty and other social ills, what concerned them most was the social isolation and disconnection that citizens reported.

The Foundation needed more information, and in May and April of 2012 surveyed nearly 4,000 people across Metro Vancouver. The Connect and Engage survey explored personal friendships, connections to neighbours and neighbourhood, their relationship to Metro Vancouver as a whole, and what prevented residents from being more connected and engaged.

“The report sparked enormous activity and conversation,” said Kevin McCort, President and CEO of the Vancouver Foundation. “Our donors and volunteer advisors were energized by the findings and wanted to address them.”

The findings caused the Foundation, as well as many other organizations, to change their programming. The first report was such a success that in 2017, the Foundation did another. Wanting to dig deeper, the report revisited the same themes to see if anything had changed, and explored new areas like barriers and opportunities to connection, as well as opportunities to catalyze action.

“The results provide important insights for municipalities, urban planners, policy makers, and community-based organizations looking for ways to embed a deeper sense of belonging in their community,” said Lidia Kemeny, Director of Grants & Community Initiatives, Vancouver Foundation.

My Health My Community

Coming soon after the Vancouver Foundation’s Connect and Engage survey, an even larger cross-sectional survey was done between 2013 and 2014 collaboratively between Vancouver Coastal Health, Fraser Health, and the University of British Columbia. Called the My Health My Community Report, it surveyed 33,000 residents of the lower mainland, capturing socio-demographic, lifestyle, health status, health care access and community perception information.

Ellen Demlow, Regional Epidemiologist for Vancouver Coastal, described how their findings compared to the Vancouver Foundation’s.

“The My Health My Community Report provides a representative community level snapshot that quantifies the relationship between connectedness and our health, while the Connections and Engagement study strives to understand the depths and diversity of our relationships as well as our capacity and willingness increase our connectedness.”

During the webinar, Demlow and Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, Medical Health Officer for Vancouver Coastal, will present a new analysis of the data that focuses on the association between social connection and health, including the key indicators of those connections.

“This information is critical to municipal planners and public health policy makers,” said Demlow, “as it provides the health context to how we understand, design, build, and improve our communities.”

Additionally, the report aims to better understand the characteristics of people who report higher social connection. For example, how a resident perceives their built environment is associated with feelings of belonging. People who feel safe, see people walking and cycling, have amenities close by and have attractive natural sites in their neighbourhoods are much more likely to feel belonging.

Healthy Built Environment Linkages Toolkit

The final presentation in the webinar discussed the Social Well-being component of the recently updated Healthy Built Environment Linkages Toolkit (HBE Linkages Toolkit). The HBE Linkages Toolkit, is the product of the Provincial Health Services Authority, under the leadership of BC’s Healthy Built Environment Alliance.The HBE Linkages Toolkit describes how population health is influenced by the design of our neighbourhoods, housing, transportation systems, natural environments, and food systems.

BC Healthy Communities’ Social Connectedness Webinar took place on May 23, 2018. A recording is available here.



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