How the City of North Vancouver encourages neighbourly social connections

April 23, 2024
This article is authored by Madeleine Hebert. Madeleine leads housing research projects at Happy Cities, working with professionals and communities to develop solutions to improve social connectedness, resilience, and wellbeing.  This project, a partnership between the Hey Neighbour CollectiveHappy Cities, and SFU Gerontology, promotes collaborative approaches and ensures that spaces provide equitable opportunities for everyone.

Social connections among neighbours are the foundation for happier, more trusting, resilient, and supportive communities. For several years, Hey Neighbour Collective, Happy Cities, and SFU Gerontology have been studying how the design of multi-unit housing influences social connection and wellbeing. 

In 2023, our team embarked on an ambitious project to translate best practices in sociable design for new buildings into implementable policy solutions. Collaborating with a cohort of six jurisdictions, we conducted a series of cross-sectoral workshops to share evidence-based best practices and co-create policy solutions. Our work highlights that wellbeing-focused housing design policies can lead to effective housing solutions, especially when planners, developers, designers, public health professionals and researchers work together across silos.

An innovative case study: The City of North Vancouver’s Active Design Guidelines

An exemplary case study is the City of North Vancouver’s Active Design Guidelines, an innovative policy established in 2015. These voluntary guidelines provide developers incentives for incorporating active and social features into new multi-unit developments, aiming to promote physical activity and social interaction. The guidelines recognize that physical activity and social interaction are essential elements to support overall wellbeing and a healthy lifestyle. The Active Design Guidelines offered a valuable opportunity to evaluate an established policy. 

This research comes at an important time, given new provincial legislation mandating cities to legalize and build more multi-unit housing. Multi-unit housing is the predominant housing form in the land-constrained City of North Vancouver. Encouraging active and socially connected housing design plays a key role in supporting City Council’s ambition of becoming “the healthiest small city in the world.” 

This research involved post-occupancy evaluations of buildings that followed the Active Design Guidelines and engagement with residents, developers, architects, and City staff to assess the impact and implementation of the policy. The collective findings aim to inform policy updates around active and sociable multi-unit housing design in the City of North Vancouver, contributing to a healthier, more resilient future. 

The six shared spaces incentivized through the Active Design Guidelines: primary stairs, secondary stairs, outdoor circulation, indoor amenities, outdoor recreation, and community gardens. (City of North Vancouver Active Design Guidelines)

Successes from the Active Design Guidelines

Our research found that the Active Design Guidelines have garnered widespread support from architects, developers, City staff, and residents. They have facilitated the integration of innovative design features into new developments, resulting in many examples of active design. 

Particularly noteworthy are the successful incorporation of active lobbies, primary stairs, and rooftop amenities. Architects also appreciated the flexibility offered by the guidelines, which enable designers to incorporate elements such as social circulation and creative connections between amenity spaces. Developers have also benefited from the guidelines, appreciating the opportunity to receive floor area exclusions for shared amenities and social, active circulation spaces. 

Collectively, these guidelines have influenced the design of at least 14 buildings within the City of North Vancouver. Although the impact of the voluntary Active Design Guidelines remains relatively small in scale, the research highlights that this policy model can be successful at creating buildings that centre wellbeing. 

Shared roof deck and garden area at the Origin by Anthem. (Hey Neighbour Collective)
Wide, exterior walkways with social seating nooks at Driftwood Village. (Emma Avery / Happy Cities)

Stories of connection, engagement and neighbourliness

Our research gathered data directly from buildings designed to meet the Active Design Guidelines. During the focus group, we heard from 10 residents living in three active design buildings. 

Overall, we heard that residents living in active design buildings in North Vancouver enjoy spending time in and connecting with their neighbours in the shared spaces of their buildings. We encountered inspiring stories of social connection, particularly from two cohousing communities, Driftwood Village and Quayside Village, where residents participate in weekly meals and other activities together. As one resident of Driftwood Village Cohousing shared with us: “One of the things I really love about living in Driftwood is that I know all the people that live there, and they know me. And that feels really comforting and comfortable. Also, there’s lots of children on my floor, and there’s a baby next door. I really love that.” 

Four-year-old Driftwood Village residents are working hard at planting the rooftop community garden. (Driftwood Village Cohousing)

Gaining a broader perspective on social connection in the City of North Vancouver

To broaden our engagement, we gathered feedback from 601 residents residing in multi-unit housing in the City of North Vancouver through an online survey to help us understand the relationships between social connection, building design and wellbeing in more depth. While our focus was on built environment solutions for fostering better connections, our findings underscored the importance of stable, comfortable, and affordable housing as the foundation for social connection and community building. 

We identified the crucial role of stratas and building operators in implementing the right programming and management policies to intentionally foster community. For example, residents shared the importance of having shared spaces that are always open rather than relying on booking systems. 

Overall, our study supported the notion that multi-unit housing communities can serve as positive catalysts for social connection, strengthening people’s overall sense of belonging and community. For instance, residents who feel more connected to their neighbours often report a stronger sense of belonging and are more inclined to engage with civic or urban issues in their neighbourhood.

The spectrum of neighbourly interactions. (Happy Cities)

Expanding impact: mainstreaming sociable design

The City of North Vancouver offers an important precedent as a local government that has implemented policy to encourage active and social multi-unit housing. Audits of several active design buildings and interviews with developers, architects, and City staff highlighted successful design strategies and opportunities for indoor and outdoor shared spaces. 

Further, many residents engaged through the survey and focus groups expressed appreciation for shared spaces and amenities in their buildings, highlighting the importance of these spaces for wellbeing and social connection—when they are designed to be comfortable, convenient, and easily accessible. The final report presents a summary of this research, offering key learnings for municipalities that are looking to implement similar design policies to support social wellbeing in their communities. 

Overall, the study suggests that incentive-based policies can be an effective tool for encouraging high-quality, wellbeing-centred development—creating mutually beneficial outcomes for local government, developers, landlords, and residents. However, these policies—focused specifically on social connection and health in multi-unit housing—remain rare in BC. To support broader adoption among municipalities, Happy Cities and Hey Neighbour Collective are releasing a public toolkit in summer 2024. 


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