Building social connections: Housing design policies to support wellbeing for all

Happy Cities, Hey Neighbour Collective, and Simon Fraser University are working with six local governments in Metro Vancouver to co-create policies for social wellbeing in multi-unit housing.

Colourful yellow and blue graphic with text reading, "Building social connections." On the right side, there is an illustration of different groups of people living in multi-unit housing, such as townhouses and apartment towers. On the bottom, there are logos for Simon Fraser University, Happy Cities, and Hey Neighbour Collective

Building social connections

Happy Cities and Hey Neighbour Collective are co-leading this three-phase project, in partnership with Simon Fraser University. Happy Cities and Hey Neighbour Collective have collected substantial evidence over the last several years on design and programming strategies to inform inclusive, ‘sociable’ housing policy at the municipal level. We are excited to continue applying this research to practice through this Building Social Connections project. Over the next year, we will be working with six jurisdictions in Metro Vancouver to co-create new design policies to support wellbeing for residents in multi-unit housing. This work comes at an ideal time for the region, building on Metro 2050 and ensuring that new, denser housing contributes to happier, healthier communities for all.

This project includes three phases:

What do we mean by social wellbeing?

Social wellbeing includes elements such as a sense of belonging and inclusion, and how satisfied a person feels in their social relationships and connections—with family, friends, neighbours, and the wider community. It contributes to a person’s overall wellbeing, and is closely linked to health and happiness.

Global research has highlighted the importance of addressing our current loneliness and isolation epidemic. In Canada, a 2021 survey found that 1 in 10 adults experience loneliness frequently. The US Surgeon General recently released a report on the health impacts of isolation, equivalent to smoking a dozen cigarettes a day. Other countries, such as the UK are starting to address social isolation as a policy issue.

Currently, there is little guidance on how to design multi-unit buildings from a social wellbeing lens. Social wellbeing in housing is impacted by the design of common spaces, circulation spaces, and surrounding neighbourhood amenities, among others. Typically, local governments suggest minimum common area space and some construction elements that need to be included in a multi-unit residential project. These recommendations are generally not enough to realize the full social potential of shared spaces. By developing evidence-based policy and programming, cities can encourage the design of housing with shared spaces that facilitate positive neighbourly social connections, inclusion, and resilience.

Phase 1: Measuring the impact of the City of North Vancouver’s Active Design Guidelines

The City of North Vancouver developed Active Design Guidelines in 2015, representing a unique, incentive-based approach to improving the design of multi-unit housing. The Guidelines offer incentives (in the form of FSR exclusions) for new multi-unit housing developments that encourage physical activity (such as through the design of wide, social stairs and corridors) and health and social connections (such as community gardens and other thoughtfully designed amenities). However, the impact of this policy has not yet been evaluated. In this phase, we audited several active design buildings and engaged residents, architects, planners, developers, and building managers to uncover the impacts of the policy. This research also included a public survey of over 600 residents living in multi-unit housing in the City of North Vancouver to gain a broader understanding of what elements are most important to consider when designing shared spaces in multi-unit housing.

Taken together, the findings aim to inform future updates to the Active Design Guidelines, highlighting successes, challenges, and opportunities for the City of North Vancouver to support health and wellbeing in multi-unit housing developments. The research also offers crucial learnings and considerations for other municipalities that are looking to implement similar design guidelines.

Phase 2: Co-creating housing design policies to support wellbeing in multi-unit housing

Happy Cities and Hey Neighbour Collective will provide a multidisciplinary learning opportunity to help the six jurisdictions create individual policies that encourage inclusive approaches to designing for wellbeing and social connectedness in multi-unit housing. At the end of the process, jurisdictions will create regulatory or incentive-based policies to encourage social design and programming for all types and tenures of multi-unit housing.

We will host four workshop sessions and two public webinars as part of this phase of work.

  • Workshop 1: Building social connections
  • Workshop 2: Housing for all
  • Workshop 3: Affordability
  • Workshop 4: Co-designing policies

Phase 3: Developing the Building Social Connections policy and design toolkit

Following Phases 1 and 2, the findings from this process will be summarized in a policy and design toolkit, which will be publicly available. Stay tuned for the policy toolkit in the summer of 2024.

Project resources

Project funders, supporters, and participants:

  • BC Centre for Disease Control
  • BC Non-profit Housing Organization (BCNPHA)
  • Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC)
  • City of Burnaby
  • City of New Westminster
  • City of North Vancouver
  • City of Surrey
  • City of Vancouver
  • Landlord BC
  • Metro Vancouver
  • Plan H, BC Healthy Communities
  • Simon Fraser University (SFU) Community-Engaged Research Initiative (CERI)
  • Tsawwassen First Nation
  • Vancity Community Foundation

This project received funding from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the views expressed are those of the author and CMHC accepts no responsibility for them.

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