Backgrounder: Belonging

By Lidia Kemeny, Director, Partnerships, Grants and Community Initiatives, Vancouver Foundation

Desmond Tutu, in his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, offers a perspective on “ubuntu” which might help inform our Western definitions of “Belonging and Inclusion.” “It speaks of the very essence of being human…You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say ‘A person is a person through other persons.’”

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam amplified the conversation about the role that social capital plays in building community. His findings were startling, for he discovered that the one thing that distinguished the more successful from less successful communities was the extent of social capital, or widespread relatedness that existed among its residents.

There is a large body of research that links a low sense of belonging in community and social isolation with poor health. Lonely people suffer more depression, heart disease, sleeping problems, high blood pressure, and even an increased risk of dementia.

In Vancouver, the Vancouver Foundation first began to explore the issue of belonging in 2010 through a Vital Signs report. Their survey showed that when it came to happiness, a person’s education level, income or ethnic background did not matter much. The main factor in people identifying themselves as happy and having a good quality of life was that they felt they “belonged” in their community and they
“trusted” their neighbours. When this report was published it created so much interest that the Foundation began a journey to better understand how to connect and engage residents in communities.

In July 2011, the Vancouver City Planning Commission (VCPC) reported on a project aimed at finding the connections between what neighbourhoods need and the City’s sustainability goals. However, those connections weren’t what people wanted to discuss. It wasn’t that they weren’t interested in transit, recycling, and bicycle paths. They were. It’s just that they were not the neighbourhoods’ priority. Their main concern was building caring connections between people; knowing your neighbour, people
helping other people. VCPC concluded that the most important investments the City could make in neighbourhood sustainability are those “that strengthen and extend connections among people and groups in ways that build trust.”

In 2012 the Vancouver Foundation reported further on belonging, using the lens of connections and engagement: “connections” meaning people’s relationships with others and the strength of those relationships; and “engagement” meaning people’s commitment to community and their willingness to take actions to solve problems or participate in activities that make their community better. The Foundation found that one in four respondents said they are alone more often than they would like to
be. The report Connect and Engage showed that loneliness has negative consequences for the entire community. When people feel lonely, they are also more likely to feel unwelcome in their neighbourhood and skeptical about community trust. As well, these residents are less likely to participate in activities that make their community a better place to live.

In 2017, Vancouver Foundation decided to commission a new report to revisit the themes of their 2012 research. It continued to measure the strength of residents’ connections and engagement at the personal, neighbourhood, and community level, and also looked closer at the barriers and opportunities to move beyond the issues and catalyze action. The findings show that in many ways people feel the same about the strength of their connections as they did in 2012. However, many still find it difficult to make friends. Approximately one-in-four continue to find themselves alone more often than they would like, and one-in-five don’t have a neighbour to ask for help. This weakens the resilience of our communities.

The Vancouver Foundation’s Connect and Engage 2017 report reveals a desire for stronger connections and sense of belonging. The results show that those who are more likely to experience weaker connections – particularly younger people and those living in low-income households – have clear ideas on how they would like to make new friends and are open to expanding their circle. Residents are less active in community life today compared to five years ago. Participation in almost every community related
activity has dropped since 2012. But people still prefer connecting in person, and less than one in five feel they spend too much time with technology. The survey provides insight into the kinds of activities and places that connect people. Social gatherings, community festivals, and participating in community projects are the most popular ways for neighbours to get to know each other. Community gardens and green spaces are at the top of the list of spaces people would like to share.

“Engagement for Real” and “A City for All” were two of four topics of focus at the VCPC’s 2017 Summit on Shaping Resilience: A Summit on Resilience and Vancouver’s Future. Participants confirmed the importance of building social capacity as a way of improving Vancouver’s resiliency. Inclusion and belonging were also identified as priorities by the participants at the initial workshop to help design the
2018 Summit. In a city as diverse as Vancouver, the need is growing to find ways to build strong social ties within and between communities of mutual respect.

In the words of the Vancouver Foundation, “We are not alone in our endeavors to build stronger communities. We are encouraged by the inspiring efforts of others in this space, and welcome policy makers, community organizations, private companies, business organizations, faith-based groups, and individuals to put findings into action.”

“Community belonging is a key factor explaining differences among Canadian communities in their average levels of life satisfaction. It is also the key reason why people in large cities are generally less happy than in smaller communities, where tighter connections occur more naturally. To create that sense of belonging in larger cities is possible, but it requires rethinking how spaces are designed, services delivered, and how individuals treat each other.”

Dr. John Helliwell, Professor Emeritus, UBC and Co- Editor of the World Happiness Report.