Why is it so hard to make friends in Vancouver?

By Carolyn Ali

A lone person wearing a toque leans on the railing of the seawall in Yaletown, Vancouver, and looks out onto False Creek.
It’s not just you: there are things both individuals and communities can do to help newcomers settle socially into a city. Photo: iStock

Here’s how the community could help newcomers find a sense of belonging

Everyone’s heard the lament: it’s hard to make friends in Vancouver. Loneliness was a well-documented problem before the pandemic, and COVID-19 raised awareness of the importance of social connection for our health and wellbeing. But just as we’re returning to our normal lives, a record number of us are working from home in isolation.

That includes newcomers to Vancouver, who might otherwise form social bonds through work. “The workplace is a major way of meeting people,” points out Dr. Suzanne Huot, an occupational scientist at UBC’s Centre for Migration Studies. “But many people aren’t working directly with others anymore in a traditional sense. So how are we going to get people reconnected socially if they are newly arrived and don’t have any kind of real opportunities to meet other people?”

Part of the answer, Dr. Huot says, is not leaving individuals to figure things out for themselves. While Canada plans to add 1.45 million immigrants by 2025, Dr. Huot sees a gap in services to help people settle in socially.

“A lot of immigration policy is about supporting the Canadian labour market,” she says. “We don’t seem to have the same concerted effort to integrate people socially as we do economically.” However, she notes, “as individuals, there’s more to life than work. And if your family isn’t happy in a community, you’re not going to stay there.”

Dr. Huot researches opportunities and places where people can best connect outside the labour market. Community organizations can play a key role. Research by UBC sociologist Dr. Sean Lauer, who studies the sociology of friendship, and Dr. Miu Chung Yan, a professor in the UBC School of Social Work who works with immigrant and refugee serving agencies, also shows the importance of community in helping individuals forge social connections.

“Often the idea of finding friendship, a sense of belonging, and integration into society comes back to ‘What can the individual do?’” says Dr. Lauer. “But it’s not just an individual problem; it’s a problem that’s common across urban communities. And so the solutions aren’t necessarily individual solutions.”

Here are four things that individuals and communities can do to help promote a greater sense of social belonging.

People are more likely to develop social connections in spaces that encourage interaction and spark conversation. Photo: iStock

Connect on a neighbourhood level

Dr. Lauer and Dr. Yan have studied the role of neighbourhood houses in developing social ties and in the settlement experience of newcomers to Canada. They found that these organizations are uniquely successful at community building in a way that libraries or community centres are not.

“The beauty of neighbourhood houses is you can go there and you don’t need to have a particular purpose,” says Dr. Yan. “At a community centre, the majority of people go there for a specific purpose like a sport or a class, and they then leave. No one will talk to you. But neighbourhood houses are different. It’s almost like a family, a home. Everybody knows everybody. And you invest in it.”

Neighbourhood houses have a specific goal of connecting diverse people of all ages. They attract people by offering social programs such as daycare, but they welcome entire families and encourage mingling.

“We can see through our data that people go in for one activity but then they get involved in other things,” says Dr. Lauer. “That kind of variety of participation really makes a difference with making friends and having connections in the neighbourhood. Some people stay involved in neighbourhood houses for 10 years or more.”

Currently, Vancouver’s nine houses are located primarily on Vancouver’s East side and face inconsistent funding that restricts programs and hours. Dr. Yan and Dr. Lauer say that because the houses are hyper-local, funders may not be aware of their value. They believe that every neighbourhood, including suburban areas such as Richmond, could benefit from a neighbourhood house, and they should be planned into new developments, such as the one that is being integrated into Arbutus Village.

Design in more opportunities for interaction

Urban planning offers an opportunity for more intentional community building. Parks are part of that, but Dr. Yan says we need more mediated spaces that encourage interaction. “Who talks in the park?” he asks. “People who have a dog.” In other words, it’s not just about having a space to meet people, but the conditions that spark conversation.

UBC psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Dunn is researching how to better design high-rise buildings to facilitate more meaningful social interaction among residents. She’s working with a team of architects, engineers, and other social psychologists to develop software to help determine how much a building design facilitates meaningful interactions.

Iris Lok, a UBC doctoral candidate in social psychology, worked with Dr. Dunn on the project. “There’s a lot of [research] work showing that people derive a lot of emotional benefits from talking to strangers, yet there’s a social norm against talking to strangers,” she told The University of British Columbia Magazine in story on loneliness in Vancouver.

Lok explains that an encounter is more likely to lead to conversation if people own a dog, see each other regularly, or if they interact in a place where social norms encourage people to chat. Thus social connections are more likely to develop in a space such as a shared kitchen or mini library than an elevator or parking lot.

Organizing social activities and fostering an inclusive, welcoming, environment encourages people to return. Photo: iStock

Meet the same people regularly over a shared interest

In her study on social engagement in community spaces, Dr. Huot found regularity to be a key factor in helping French-speaking immigrants and refugees in Vancouver build social connections. Places of worship, such as churches, mosques or gurdwaras, are excellent at building community by making it easy for people to attend.

Dr. Huot says that in an expensive city like Vancouver, where people are focused on earning a living, anything that removes barriers to participation helps with social integration. For example, the church in the study offered childcare, free parking and activities on different days and times.

While faith-based gatherings aren’t for everyone, organizations such as sports leagues could offer similar benefits. “You have that instantaneous thing in common that connects you,” Dr. Huot explains. “And if you have a shared interest or passion, you’re more likely to keep showing up.”

Reach out to others

After moving from Ontario to Vancouver, Dr. Huot says she made friends in her building because a resident hosted a monthly games night in the social room. “It was a sign on a corkboard, and that space and that activity helped bring us together,” she says. “You didn’t have to go and knock on somebody’s door.”

Organizing social activities and reaching out to others, whether it’s by individuals or community organizations, does make a difference. Fostering an inclusive, welcoming, environment encourages people to return, she says, as does diversity of leadership in an organization. “People who are new to a community need to be encouraged and supported to take on leadership roles. And when other people see people who look like them, then they think, ‘Well, I can do it too.”

Dr. Lauer says neighbourhood houses encourage everyone to participate in their operations, whether that’s by volunteering, creating a new program or serving on the board. “When people contribute, it helps to build their social capacity and civic engagement,” he says. That increases their sense of belonging.

Social connection isn’t all happenstance. “It’s a two-way street,” says Dr. Huot, in which both individuals and the community can play a part.

Carolyn Ali is a writer for UBC Brand and Marketing. With files from Madeleine de Trenqualye, UBC Faculty of Arts. This article was published on March 22, 2023. Feel free to republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.

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