Earlier this year, the Vancouver Foundation set out to determine what issues people in the community felt it should be focusing on.
The non-profit distributes tens of millions of dollars annually to needy groups across British Columbia. Foundation CEO Faye Wightman expected the survey of community leaders and various stakeholders would produce a predictable list of issues such as poverty, homelessness and affordable housing.
While they were certainly matters that people were concerned about, Ms. Wightman and her colleagues were shocked that the top issue on the minds of the majority of those being interviewed was not one that had been in the headlines: the growing sense of isolation in Metro Vancouver.
They were not only talking about isolation between communities but also the remoteness that seemed to exist between neighbours within neighbourhoods. The concern was raised that this burgeoning dilemma was leading to a number of unhappy byproducts, including a creeping civic malaise and a growing indifference to one another.
"One guy said the worst invention there ever was the garage door opener," Ms. Wightman said over lunch recently. "It allowed people to go into their homes without having to talk to their neighbours."
Vancouver has had a reputation as one of the most aloof, least friendly cities in Canada for years now. That beyond the superficial smiles a visitor or newcomer to town will get, there isn't much. Certainly not the invitations to dinner, the offers to show you around town, that you still expect in other parts of the country.
Of course, these impressions are always anecdotally based. And often when you suggest this to someone who has lived here for a while, you are presented with examples that show just how wrong you are or are told about neighbourhoods that sound like Andy Griffith's Mayberry. Perhaps there are some cases. But I think Ms. Wightman and the folks at her foundation have tapped into something quite real.
While Vancouver might be particularly noted for the distance many put between themselves and those they don't know, I think this is a situation that exists to some degree everywhere in the country. It's certainly one that has been evident in the United States for decades.
In his book Bowling Alone, Harvard professor Robert Putnam wrote that, for the first two-thirds of the 20th century, Americans were tightly connected with one another and their communities. But, during the past third of the century, Americans began to trust less, give less and disconnect from their democratic institutions and obligations such as voting.
The book popularized the expression social capital, which social scientists use to refer to notions such as social networks, mutual assistance, and expectations around reciprocity. There is mounting evidence that social capital represents tangible benefits for society.
Criminologists, for instance, have shown that the crime rate in a neighbourhood is lower when neighbours know one another. People are less prone to depression and suicide when they feel they belong to a broader group. There is less child abuse, lower teenage pregnancy rates and less substance abuse in close-knit communities. Epidemiological research has suggested that joining a group boosts life expectancy as much as quitting smoking.
So what is it specifically about Vancouver and surrounding environs that might be responsible for the pervading sense of isolationism being felt?
The Vancouver Foundation is planning to dive deeper to try and find some of the answers in the next round of research it does. Meantime, Catherine Clement, vice-president of partnerships at the foundation, says the fact that Metro Vancouver is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country is something that will have to be examined. Prof. Putnam's research found that the more ethnically and culturally diverse a region, the more it retreats.
Maybe the Internet is playing a role. An Angus Reid survey last year showed people living in Vancouver were more addicted to social media than anywhere else in the country. The survey also found that those living on the West Coast were among the loneliest in Canada, too.
"We're hoping we can get a discussion going around this," said Ms. Wightman. "Because there are huge benefits if we can do something about it."