How does residential density relate to residents’ sense of community?

In recent decades, Vancouver, like many large cities around the world, has experienced an increase in overall population, as well as dramatic increases in population densities in many areas. The effects of these increases on residents’ quality of life have not been comprehensively explored. Of particular interest to my research, are the effects, if any, of high-density environments on residents’ sense of community in their neighborhoods. Residents in Vancouver are under several housing-related pressures, including housing availability, proximity to employment, affordability, and limited housing options (limited ability to choose preferred building and neighborhood typologies). These limitations may affect some demographic groups more than others. For example, families with small children may be particularly susceptible to environments, such as high-rise buildings, that limit opportunities for semi-supervised outdoor play and peer interaction for their children. While dense urban environments may afford increased opportunities for engagement, they may also inhibit neighborhood relationship formation by limiting suitable common spaces where neighbors experience informal encounters. Such environments may thereby reduce residents’ sense of neighborhood community, possibly resulting in unwanted feelings of isolation. If dense urban environments do incur a lowered sense of neighborhood community, potential mitigating factors may include improved public space, presence of neighborhood associations, local events, homogeneity of the population, or other considerations.

The value of sense of community is often assumed (the City of Vancouver, for example, includes the goal of cultivating community connections among its residents in its Healthy City Strategy (Tavakoli 2017)), but has also been the subject of research. A 2002 Canadian study estimated that sixty percent of a person’s health status was attributable to the social, economic and physical environment (with 25% due to health care and 15% genetic) (Hall 2017). Helliwell & Barrington-Leigh (2010) show a strong correlation between having strong social networks and high life satisfaction. Several studies have shown a strong relationship between quality of life and neighborhood social connections (Talen 2000). Other studies have related mental health and subjective well-being to neighborhood sense of community (Moustafa 2009). A study by Gattino et al. (2013) found sense of community to be positively associated with the World Health Organization Quality of Life index. Amad et al. (2016) found that community projects were more likely to succeed when members felt empowered and had a strong sense of community. People with a strong sense of community tend to have healthy feelings of belonging, control over their environment, shared history with fellow members, personal investment in community success, and conviction that their needs can be met through the collective abilities of their community (Cochrun 1994). While sense of community is not required for survival, it does factor heavily in a person’s quality of life and level of satisfaction.

Although increasing urban density and interest in providing sense of community are pervasive and well-established trends , I have found no studies that have rigorously attempted to evaluate the effects that high density environments may have on residents’ sense of community, despite an extensive review of relevant literature. As cities and neighborhoods continue to increase in density, it is useful for planning academics, planning practitioners, and even neighborhood residents to understand which factors may inhibit or encourage residents’ sense of neighborhood community. This study seeks to fill a gap in knowledge by exploring these factors, with an emphasis on the role of public space and a focus on families with young children. This research will take place in the Greater Vancouver Regional District in sites that include high residential densities. I will collect data using an online survey and through individual interviews and will analyze the data by coding it. The thesis will include a qualitative discussion that offers recommendations for best practices in providing neighborhood environments that encourage a sense of community among residents.

How does residential density relate to residents’ sense of community?


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