The asocial society and urban form

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About the project

Escalating rates of isolation and loneliness among Canadians are occurring alongside the ongoing urbanization of the population. With 80% of Canadians living in urban centres, the built environment is increasingly under scrutiny as both actor and stage for human interactions. The built environment has a specifically profound conditioning effect on humans as a cultural artifact with inbuilt power imbalance and socio-economic limitations. Examining built form as a facilitator/actor in the refocusing of sociability, social cohesion and community connectivity allows for a clearer understanding of how to build and develop residential neighbourhoods and adapt existing ones.

This project documents recent research and current municipal policies linking "asociality" to urban form in Canada by examining the role urban form plays in undermining or encouraging social interaction and, as a result, community connectivity/cohesion. The intent is to understand better the role played by urban form to design and develop environments that serve residents beyond providing housing. We focused on the following avenues of inquiry:

  • scoping study of academic research spanning a 15-year window relating to urban form and social outcomes and behaviours (2021-2006). (We expanded the required 10-year publication window because of the low number of results)
  • municipal policy document review for all Canadian provincial capital cities, as well as cities with populations over 300,000
  • a targeted search for studies tied to public/subsidized/social housing projects to uncover urban form-based strategies encouraging social interaction
  • review of some international studies (excluded from key findings) to gauge differences in the research landscape from Canadian results

Key findings

The scoping study and policy review reveals the following research trends:

Research relating to our specific area of inquiry is profoundly limited. Social disconnectivity (asociality) metrics and analysis in direct connection with built form remain largely unaddressed in the Canadian context. Existing work is mainly project-specific, focusing on a housing development, a green space, gardens, a plaza, etc. International results, concentrating on examples from OECD countries that fall within the initial 10-year publication window, exceed Canadian research by a significant margin.

There is a considerable bias toward examining marginalized communities and individuals. Researching and gathering information on systemic inequality across different groups of Canadians is essential. However, in the context of this research, a society-wide phenomenon requires all groups to be represented, regardless of status or systemic privilege.

There is a notable geographic bias to existing research. Because of the bias towards low-income households, research centres around large existing social housing projects and their redevelopment. Ontario, and specifically Toronto’s Regent Park, dominates studies. A few works featuring Vancouver complement the focus on large urban centres.

There is a lack of quantitative research linked to outcomes.

  • Examinations of walkability, network connectivity, intersection density and mixed-use developments assume a priori that implementing these aspects correctly increases the sociality or sociability of residential areas. There is little to no research that supports these claims in a Canadian setting. Anecdotally, international research linking urban form and optimal density adds to an intellectual construct and has dominated the professional discourse for some time. Neoliberalism has impacted housing and neighbourhood form for decades.

Critical and reflective essays and qualitative historical analyses examining the implications of neoliberal socio-political/socio-economic approaches to city building are increasingly common. These articles were included in our scoping study because neoliberal policies relating to disinvestment in public infrastructure impact urban form and community design indirectly by influencing public transit availability and accessibility and the location of social infrastructure (libraries, plazas), among other residential elements.

  • Municipal development policies and guidelines are well-intentioned but vague. Municipal policies relying on best practices for community design deploy without a means to measure success/failure. They recognize that "third spaces" and social connectivity are beneficial, but lack robust legislation (and the research to back up the decision) beyond aesthetic standards such as greenspace provision, tree-planting guidelines or setback regulations. What is included are the social benefits of playground and greenspace proximity.

Policy implications

Our findings point to several policy implications for future urban development:

  • Walkability measures may result in more more walking, but, on their own, are unlikely to lead to more social interactions; sociality/social outcomes need to be tied to typology, land uses and investment in public/social infrastructure.
  • Evidence suggests that sizeable regional draw (retail) parks actively undermine sociality in communities, underscoring the relationship between land use and human contact. Smaller land uses increase human connectivity and offer more meaningful contact.
  • High-rise towers, regardless of tenure (ownership, market rental, subsidized rental —a combination thereof), undermine sociality in neighbourhoods where they are the dominant form of housing. The same applies to all significant areas of mono forms, e.g., suburbs. Diversity types and surprising morphologies foster pockets for social interaction. This implies that density targets and density bonusing based on providing subsidized units undermine positive sociability outcomes. The relationship between density, housing form and sociability needs to be calibrated.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Fabian Neuhaus, associate professor, Planning, University of Calgary:

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