Making The Links: Fostering Social Connection Through the Built Environment
When you’re out in your neighborhood, do you feel a sense of belonging or connection? Where do you meet others and gather? Are there nearby places for you to visit, either through walking or rolling? How do you move around?
The built environment that we use and navigate can impact our sense of social connection. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced just how vital social connections are for healthy and thriving communities. When we were told to stay home and remain in place, we lived, worked, got exercise, did groceries all mostly within our neighbourhoods. Even prior to the pandemic, people often spend most time within their neighbourhood.
Connected neighbourhoods and communities have destinations and facilities such as good community centers, schools, greenspaces, shops and cafes as well as transportation systems such as well-connected public transit, safe sidewalks that are wide enough and well-lit, safe crossings and separated bike lanes. Connected communities feel safe and welcoming for everyone to navigate and have features that support this use including benches, accessible pedestrian signals and aesthetically pleasing features. A few years ago, I co-published an academic paper looking at street design and the impact on community engagement. Streets should be designed to promote engagement through placemaking strategies, age-friendly features and active transportation infrastructure. Well-designed and safe streets can facilitate access to resources and facilities and can influence perceptions of the neighbourhood.
My senior neighbour lives alone and uses a walker to move around. She often remarks how decisionmakers and policymakers likely never use the sidewalks because they are so poorly maintained. Her routes are determined by which streets are evenly paved, wide enough, walkable and well-lit and her access to buildings is determined by which buildings have ramps, railings and elevators. These design features allow older adults and an increasingly aging population to move around the community safely and easily, which facilitates community participation and reduces social isolation. From an equity lens, there are many groups that are historically underserved and marginalized when it comes to access.
As a PhD candidate in Environmental Studies with a Master’s in Public Health, I am interested in what makes equitable, just and health-promoting environments for all, and this requires an interdisciplinary approach. We cannot create equitable neighbourhoods without understanding historical and systemic oppressions. We cannot ensure that we are fostering social connection for all if we believe that it is the responsibility of one discipline. We cannot take sustainable and intentional action on socially connected neighbourhoods if we do not have collaboration and the buy-in of those involved, including decision-makers, developers and community residents.
Healthy People 2030 has five main domains, including neighborhood and built environment as well as social and community context. However, they do not address the important intersection between both the built environment and social connection.
Healthy and just communities are often connected communities. The public realm we navigate requires intentional planning and interdisciplinary action and there are several ways to take evidence-informed action. As we move through this pandemic, we need to continue to bridge research, policy and practice to ensure that our built environments foster social connection within communities.
For a more in-depth look at this issue, read the full policy brief.