Can our homes make us less lonely?

Three ways to design multi-unit housing for social connection, happiness, and health

Photo of an older woman and young child reading a book together in a cozy social nook in an elevator lobby on an upper floor of a cohousing building. There is a warm rug and bookshelf in this mini 'library' space, which is next to people's unit entrances off of the elvator lobby
The sixth floor elevator nook at Little Mountain Cohousing is also a community library, encouraging residents to linger and connect in the space. (Little Mountain Cohousing)

Jan. 25, 2024

By Emma Avery

Our loneliness epidemic: Why social connection matters in housing

Our neighbours might just be our closest source of social connection and support—people who can lend us a cup of milk when we run out, water our plants, or invite us to a barbecue. In times of crisis, neighbours who know and trust one another are more resilient, too: They check in on each other during extreme weather, or offer support through a pandemic. Yet, in Metro Vancouver, our research finds that nearly one in five people don’t know any of their neighbours. And over one third have zero familiar neighbours that they could ask for help from if they needed it.

It might not be a surprise then that loneliness and social isolation are growing in our communities. In 2023, we conducted a survey of nearly 2,000 residents in Metro Vancouver to measure the connections between people’s neighbourhoods, their housing, and their wellbeing. In total, 71 per cent of people reported feeling lonely at least sometimes. One in five feel lonely often. This is bad news for health: Chronic loneliness and social isolation increase our risks for developing depression, dementia, and heart disease—and are as bad for us as smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. In contrast, people with strong social relationships feel happier and live on average 15 years longer.

Some types of housing—like co-ops and cohousing—intentionally use shared amenities and activities to foster social ties and trust among neighbours. But these types of community-based models are the exception rather than the norm in our communities. This year, new legislation will legalize denser multi-unit housing across B.C. Cities and housing developers have a critical opportunity to not only improve affordability—but to nurture social ties and long-term resilience for everyone. Here, we outline three evidence-based ideas for improving wellbeing in all kinds of housing.

What’s missing

When we asked people about what they feel is most lacking in their neighbourhoods, the top answers were affordability, proximity to family and friends, and a sense of community. These challenges go hand in hand: As neighbourhoods become less and less affordable, renters and other vulnerable residents may be forced to move to another area, which may be farther from their community, friends, and family.

And, not everyone experiences loneliness and social isolation equally. The amount of money your household earns is a major factor. In our study, people with long commutes, young adults, people struggling with mental health challenges, people who identify as racialized or LGBTQ+, and renters or people with mortgages were more likely to report fewer social connections than the general population. In contrast, those with greater financial stability and who face fewer systemic barriers tended to report stronger social connections. 

Three solutions

1. Offer diverse housing choices for everyone

The worst thing we can do for equity and wellbeing is to force low-income households and vulnerable residents into neighbourhoods or units that don’t meet their needs. 

Our survey found that two housing types are associated with lower wellbeing: basements (and other suites inside houses), and units under 300 square feet. In our current housing crisis, many people are living in these units by necessity rather than choice. For example, in our survey, people living in units under 300 square feet earn, on average, only around 30 per cent of what the median Metro Vancouver household earns. 

People living in basements and other suites also reported fewer social connections with family, friends, and neighbours than people in all other housing types. And people living in units of under 300 square feet reported lower levels of happiness, physical health, and mental health—even when controlling for income and other factors. These residents were also twice as likely to report having a disability.

As more municipalities consider these types of “micro-housing” units, it is important to weigh the benefits carefully and ensure that small units don’t become a replacement for affordable housing. We must offer choices all across the housing continuum that meet people’s needs and that can nurture health and wellbeing.

Conceptual illustration showing different scales of housing type and density, ranging from the smallest to largest and most dense: single detached house; duplex or multiplex; townhouse or rowhouse; low-rise apartment; mid-rise apartment; and high-rise apartment.
People can be happy and socially connected in many types of housing, from low density to high density. But how we design our buildings and neighbourhoods matters. (Happy Cities)

2) Make the most of shared spaces in multi-unit housing

As cities legalize more diverse forms of multi-unit housing—from duplexes and townhouses all the way to high-rise apartments—there is growing evidence on how shared spaces can boost social ties, health, and belonging. Our research found that people with greater access to communal amenities in their building were more likely to know their neighbours, be willing to ask them for help when they need it, and feel that they have people they can confide in. They were also less likely to feel lonely.

In our survey, the top three shared amenities that people in multi-unit housing reported access to are parking (46%), bike storage (41%), and laundry (39%). These spaces may not be glamorous, but they have significant—often unmet—social potential: Much like lobbies or hallways, most residents use or pass through them on a daily or weekly basis. Research shows that when these spaces are conveniently located, comfortable, and designed to encourage social interaction, neighbours are more likely to run into one another, engage in casual conversations, and form trusting relationships.

Diagram of cartoon people along a horizontal axis to illustrate the spectrum of social connections. The five steps along the spectrum are: 1) Building design, 2) Repeated encounters, 3) Doing things together, 4) Forming friendships, and 5) Mutual support. At stage 1, building design can encourage residents to bump into each other and linger in shared spaces. At stage 3, programming starts to play a role, along with design, by helping people make the jump from casual encounters to meaningful relationships.

Of course, more recreational spaces—like shared courtyards, lounges, and gardens—are important, too. But the easy win is to activate the spaces most people already have—parking, lobbies, hallways, laundry—and make sure that they are safe, comfortable, and accessible for people to spend time in.

3. Design high-quality multi-unit and rental housing

In our study, renters were less likely than homeowners to be satisfied with the quality of their housing, including things like temperature control, noise levels, privacy, natural light, and housing condition. People living in various types of multi-unit housing—many of whom are also renters—were also less likely than people in single-detached homes to be satisfied with the design and quality of their home. 

As the single-family home becomes less and less attainable, it is more important than ever to build diverse forms of high-quality, multi-unit housing—for both renters and owners. One strategy is to create design guidelines and incentives for developers to build useful and social shared spaces in new developments. For example, the City of North Vancouver’s Active Design Guidelines offer developers incentives in exchange for adding healthy design and social features, such as outdoor circulation, active stairs, and community gardens. These incentives help to offset the costs of building amenities, so that shared, social spaces don’t take away from the number of housing units. 

Maximizing wellbeing in multi-unit housing

Everyone deserves the right to live in affordable, high-quality housing that meets their needs and supports a sense of belonging—whether they live in a single-family home, high-rise tower, or somewhere in between. Crucially, our research finds that people living in apartments, townhouses, and multiplexes are just as likely to be happy, healthy, and socially connected as those in single detached homes. Other than basement suites and very small units, the type of housing people live in isn’t a significant factor in their wellbeing. 

What matters more is how people experience their housing: that people live in a unit that they can afford, that meets their needs, that has secure, long-term tenure—and that offers a sense of belonging, community, and social connection. For the multi-unit housing we already have, governments can consider providing grants or support for building managers and community organizations to implement activities or small design changes that help improve wellbeing and connect neighbours. But when planning and designing new housing, we can and must establish residents’ wellbeing as a priority, from the start.

Learn more

You can read the full results of our research on neighbourhood density, housing design, and wellbeing here.

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