Social quality of life in high-density built environments

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About the project

  • Canada’s cities are growing, driven by internationally reputed quality of life, high rates of urban immigration and urban opportunities.
  • Between 2016 and 2021, across Canada, homes in buildings five or more stories tall grew 14.7%, twice the rate of growth of single-detached homes. As the share of Canadians living in higher-density environments grows, their expectations, habits and abilities related to neighbourliness and sociability are reshaped.
  • International and Canadian norms and goals of urban planning promote housing and neighbourhood density for reasons that include health, economic opportunity, tourism and place promotion, cost efficiencies in infrastructure and service provision, reduced environmental impact, and housing affordability.
  • At the same time, high-density living is one culprit of the emerging asocial society, thought to drive urban alienation, asocial and antisocial behaviours, loneliness and social isolation, marginalization, nuisance, and exacerbated vulnerabilities.
  • A two-stage literature review was conducted. Using a set of keywords, we searched for related articles in two electronic databases, resulting in 1817 Web of Science and 2302 Scopus citations. To determine which of these articles were most related, a citation analysis was conducted. After several rounds of filtering, 51 articles were selected for synthesis. They report on research in 25 countries and disciplines that include urban planning, urban studies, sociology, health, housing studies, gerontology and other, interdisciplinary fields.
  • Next, mixed-method systematic review was conducted, including data extraction, transformation, integration and network-based synthesis.
  • These methods were supplemented with our work within the Hey Neighbour Collective, a multi-stakeholder group of housing providers, non-profits, researchers, local and regional governments, housing associations and health authorities. We surveyed participants and conducted a grey literature review to identify approaches and needs related to the emerging asocial society within high-density home environments.

Key findings

  • While policy and research related to housing and neighbourhood change in Canadian cities has considered trade-offs between density and traditional suburban form, the pace of high-density urban growth is overtaking the value of the comparison. The task of preparing for a prosocial future needs now to consider the contextual, structural, policy and other factors that can improve social quality of life within high-density environments.
  • Social quality of life is context-dependent and relates to individual, sociocultural, political and socioeconomic characteristics as well as structural factors. The relationship between social quality of life and high-density built environment is inconsistent: it is sometimes mutually supportive and sometimes parasitic. Context matters greatly.
  • In referring to social quality of life, we include concepts of social trust, connections, capital and participation, cohesion and neighbourliness. Different definitions and uses of these terms shift focus on social relationships within formal and informal networks and across a range of intensities and purposes, from passive to instrumental to emotionally significant.
  • Individual and household characteristics, public policy and housing governance and management, building and neighbourhood design and land use, social interaction approaches and activities, time use and free time, and climate are the key factors that affect social quality of life in high-density built environments.
  • Households that are at higher risk of asocial behaviours may be: in poor health, older, immigrants, low income, less educated or unemployed, or may belong to a very different social class than their neighbour. Resident lifestyles, personalities and preferences also influence social interaction patterns and sociability.
  • Social quality of life in high-density built environments is affected by governance arrangements at scales from the national to the local, as well as private building policies, rules and norms.
  • Resident collaboration and participation in building maintenance and management is recommended as a means to promote effective neighbouring and prosocial environments. Factors cited as barriers to resident participation include discrimination based on tenure status, social class and citizenship; lack of resident awareness; lack of opportunities for neighbours and building management to connect; dysfunctional landlord-tenant relationships; lack of building management and maintenance bylaws and structures; and poor residential environment quality, safety and security.

Policy implications

  • Promoting, designing and supporting neighbourly social connections in prosocial high-density environments can make a significant contribution to urban and regional policy goals of complete communities, social inclusion and social infrastructure, and help meet national and provincial housing targets and objectives.
  • Consideration is needed across policy sectors including housing, social policy, labour, health and immigration. Impacts of the prosocial capacity of high-density built environments are felt in arrangements for: tenure, climate and weather adaptation, time use and schedules, equity and inclusion, and building management and maintenance systems and processes.
  • Prosocial planning, design and programming demand consideration by local and regional governments and private housing providers related to size, layout and design of housing units, building floors, indoor and outdoor amenity spaces, and circulation spaces, as well as choice of building materials and equipment, neighbourhood activity and land use mix.
  • Current and future neighbourhood and household composition with different social, cultural, political and economic mixes should be taken into account in offering context-specific prosocial high-density built environments. Significant dimensions of this mix that lead to different levels of social vulnerability include health, immigration, age, gender and sex, class, income, tenure, household structure, employment and education status.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

MohammadJavad Nouri, postdoctoral research fellow, urban studies and gerontology, Simon Fraser University (SFU):

Meg Holden, professor, urban studies and resources and environmental management, SFU:

Meghan Winters, professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, SFU:

Atiya Mahmood, associate professor, gerontology, SFU:

Meridith Sones, PhD candidate, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University:

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