Are we building a city for lonely people?

Urban thinkers believe condo living in Toronto is causing a loneliness epidemic. But it’s not too late to change the story.


On a recent bright Sunday afternoon, CityPlace is quiet. Colossal glass towers stare down onto empty sidewalks as impatient drivers hurry toward the Rogers Centre. A pseudo-piazza connecting two condos is barren, as is the Douglas Coupland-designed Canoe Landing Park, except for a bundled-up woman with her equally bundled-up dog. At Bathurst and Fort York, a banner from a light post boasts, “Toronto Thrives Here.” 

The small neighbourhood located between Bathurst and Blue Jays Way, Front and Lake Shore is one of the most densely populated areas downtown, yet no one is around.

Andrew Varden lives in a condo at Bathurst and Fort York, and he’s lived in two others in the area since 2010. “You don’t really run into people ever, which is the weirdest thing when you think about how many people live in such close proximity to you,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to tell you what people living two doors down from me even look like.”

Varden, a 36-year-old designer for a tech company, says theoretically, nothing is stopping him from knocking on a neighbour’s door to introduce himself. But it would be easier if there were spaces in the condo where residents could naturally congregate, like a co-working office or a larger lounge area. It also doesn’t help that around 70 per cent of residents are renters, so people are always moving in and out. 

“That’s the thing about condo design. They’re all boxes in the sky,” says Varden. “It’s the people around you who really anchor you to a space, and not having that makes it feel very transient. It’s a bit alienating.”

Toronto can be overwhelming. And in the winter, which feels like it lasts for seven months, downright depressing. Add to that the affordable housing crisis, lack of job security, the pervasive nature of social media and an unreliable public transit system, and you get a loneliness epidemic. 

According to researchers, feelings of social isolation are prevalent in the downtown core. A study released in November by the Toronto Foundation found that downtowners are less likely to feel that their neighbourhoods “are supporting the type of life and environment they want for themselves.” Across the city, young people aged 25 to 29 exhibit the lowest levels of social capital, i.e., “the essential ‘lubricant’ that binds people together as a city.” Across the country, some doctors say up to 30 per cent of Canadians of all ages report persistent social isolation and loneliness. 

Studies have shown that loneliness is a public health concern. It makes us feel depressed and anxious, increases our risk of cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s and shortens our life expectancy. And the way we’re designing our cities – massive skyscrapers with claustrophobic units, few green areas, a lack of truly public spaces – is exacerbating the problem.

Architects, city planners, community activists and psychologists are examining the relationship between urban design and loneliness – and implementing solutions to cure what makes us feel alone in Canada’s biggest city. 

STRANGERS IN THE SKY

Alexis K and her boyfriend moved to Toronto in 2017. When they lived in Calgary, the couple rented a large historic house, broken up into several units. “Everyone knew everyone,” says Alexis, noting that they would hang out on their front porch together and invite each other to house parties. 

Toronto has been a drastic change. Even though they’ve been in their Queen West condo rental for almost two years, Alexis says they still don’t really know anyone in their building. Alexis, who works as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator, says condo life is isolating. “The new appliances are amazing, but our neighbours were so much nicer in Calgary,” she says. 

According to architect Robert Coelho, it’s not that surprising people like Alexis feel isolated in condos. He argues that condos aren’t all that different from the sprawling suburbs built in the 60s, 70s and 80s. 

As he explains it, the massive skyscrapers of downtown are as homogenous as the cookie-cutter houses with symmetrical front lawns of those subdivisions. In a condo, you enter the building using a fob, go up an elevator, down a hallway, into your own unit and then you’re on your own. In the suburbs, you drive down the street, park in your garage and go inside. 

“For some people, that’s great. But for many, this is forced upon them. It’s hard to find ways to connect,” says Coelho, who works at the Toronto-based firm Edward Wojs Architect. 

An abundance of new research has connected loneliness and high-rise living. A 2017 survey found that in Vancouver, a place where condos are so widespread its nickname is the City of Glass, people who live in buildings of more than five storeys reported significantly greater difficulty making friends, feeling less welcome in their neighbourhood and tending to avoid interaction with strangers more than in other building types, like detached homes and townhouses. 

Some condo developers in Toronto have begun addressing this by building co-working spaces as an amenity, realizing that as the piecemeal gig economy becomes more common, residents need spaces to work and socialize during the workday. (Although water-cooler talk might feel tedious, experts say it’s actually good for your mental health.) 

Coelho has another solution: co-housing. 

Co-housing is a planned community of private homes that share some common spaces, like a large kitchen and dining area, living rooms and outdoor play areas. 

The idea originated in Denmark in the 1960s, when people from farming villages began moving to cities where there were more jobs. Accustomed to the interdependency that existed in their small hometowns, they began buying up larger buildings and living together. 

It might seem like a radical idea in 2019, more akin to a college dorm than adult life, but Coelho says he’s worked with four different groups in Toronto who are interested in building co-housing projects. One of those groups is Wine on the Porch, a proposed home in Bloor West for people aged 50-plus that would ensure they have social supports around them as they age. Initial designs include private bedrooms with a shared kitchen, two dining rooms, office spaces and an outside area. 

Another is the Toronto HomeShare Pilot Project, which matched 12 Toronto university students with older adults who had a bedroom to spare. Launched in September 2018 and lasting four months, the students helped with physically demanding chores like shovelling snow and errands like dog-walking, and in return pay a subsidized rent. The project addresses the affordability crisis for renters, while also easing social isolation felt by seniors. So far the results have been overwhelmingly positive. 

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Samuel Engelking

Cranes mark office and condo developments at Front and Spadina, but it’s between those rising buildings where new possibilities exist.

SOCIAL BUILDING BLOCKS

Located in East York and bound by the Don Valley ravine, Thorncliffe Park is a landing pad for immigrant communities. It’s full of bustling restaurants and shops, a community centre and library, active churches and mosques. 

But a little over 10 years ago, in the middle of the neighbourhood’s dense high-rise tower development, R.V. Burgess Park stood in disarray. Over the years, the green space had deteriorated: the playground equipment was removed after it was deemed unsafe, the lights weren’t working, and neither was the splash pad and water fountains. People were afraid to walk through the park at night. 

When Sabina Ali moved with her husband and three young kids to the neighbourhood from India via Saudi Arabia in 2008, she was disappointed by the conditions. More than 30,000 people live in high-rises surrounding the park, and yet there was no public space for them. 

“The neighbourhood was missing that common space where people can meet,” says Ali. “A lot of newcomers go through stress and isolation. I wanted [the park] to break those cultural and language barriers, and [for newcomers to] use the park as their backyard and as a place where people could share information, celebrate and have fun.”

Within a year, Ali co-founded the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee and started organizing Friday night arts programming for kids and weekly markets where the women could sell clothing, jewellery and dried fruits, while also helping them build their communication skills, make extra money and gain self-confidence. 

In a decade, R.V. Burgess has completely transformed into a hub. Along with a new splash pad and playground equipment, the park has a community garden where kids help with weeding and watering, a weekly market that runs from May to September, North America’s first tandoor oven in a park and an all-season café located in a converted shipping container. 

“The park has such a positive impact on the lives of the people here. I’ve had a lot of seniors who have been living here for 25 years tell me there was nothing here before and now all these things are happening,” says Ali. 

The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UD/MH), an international think tank, has identified four key elements that improve the well-being of city-dwellers: green spaces, active places like outdoor gyms, places that encourage natural social interaction and well-lit safe neighbourhoods that are easy to navigate. 

R.V. Burgess checks off all of these boxes and illustrates how transformative these spaces can be.

It also shows that these spaces can be integrated into already established communities like CityPlace and Liberty Village – where green space is so limited there are turf wars between parents with young kids and dog owners for the few swaths of grass. 

In CityPlace, the kind of community-oriented design thinking championed by UD/MH is finally coming to fruition with the construction of the 3.2-acre Canoe Landing Campus. Adjacent to Canoe Landing Park, the development will bring much-needed amenities to the area, like public and Catholic elementary schools, a community centre and a daycare. A sloping green roof will feature urban gardens, a jogging track and basketball court. 

Described by ZAS Architects + Interiors, the firm behind the project, as a “social condenser,” Canoe Landing Campus offers a prototype that could be implemented in other neighbourhoods. The two schools are expected to open this fall.

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Samuel Engelking

Other than Canoe Landing Park, there are few green spaces in CityPlace. The downtown core has one of the lowest percentiles of parkland per capita in Toronto.

THE POWER OF PARKS

Studies have shown that access to nature helps with everything from social anxiety and depression to reducing stress levels and blood pressure. It can also make you feel happier. 

That’s not to say we need to build the equivalent of a High Park or Trinity Bellwoods downtown.

Cognitive neuroscientist Colin Ellard, who teaches at the University of Waterloo, studied the way Torontonians felt while walking through various urban settings using a headband that measures brainwaves in real time and discovered that greenery of all sizes can have positive impacts. 

He found that small green spaces like Clarence Square Park, near Wellington and Spadina, can have a restorative effect and encourage sociability. Even smaller doses of nature, like trees and shrubbery, can improve mood, especially along streetscapes where facades can be boring and uniform. (In neighbourhoods like CityPlace, where city-mandated podiums on the ground level of condos have created ubiquitous glass storefronts, vegetation can have a huge impact.) 

Rob Voigt, a former urban planner for the city of Vancouver and now based in Ontario, says green spaces are most useful when integrated into the public realm, where a diverse group of people can benefit. 

“The challenge is, how do you design spaces that allow for spontaneity but are also interesting to different age groups, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds?” asks Voigt. “When those people can interact, you can create a sense of community that impacts our mental and physical health.” 

He points to the Bentway as a successful example of a space transformed from “completely derelict for human consumption” into one that binds together the local community and becomes a destination for the greater city. 

Underneath the hulking Gardiner Expressway, people of all ages skate along the Bentway’s rink that weaves between the concrete columns. On a recent visit, I saw children in snow pants teetering across the ice, while parents watched from bright yellow chairs. A couple sipped hot chocolate around a fire pit. 

Another project with a similar ethos is Rail Deck Park, a proposed park for over the downtown rail corridor between Bathurst and Blue Jays Way. The 21-acre park, which the city’s chief planner Gregg Lintern describes as “the very last opportunity to build a big park downtown,” includes large lawns, play spaces and public art. 

Lintern says that although the city doesn’t have any direct initiatives to tackle loneliness, its overall design strategy inherently addresses the issue.

“Social isolation is something [the planning department] very much considers,” says Lintern. “[We] design public spaces with the specific purpose of building strong social bonds and fostering inclusion, diversity and equity. And in doing so, [we] can combat social isolation, and its symptoms like loneliness.”

The Bentway and Rail Deck Park show the incredible potential of derelict spaces, and how making room for nature and public spaces downtown might be easier than we think. And that’s important, considering our downtown core has one of the lowest percentiles of parkland per capita in the city. 

Near the foot of Spadina and Front, looking northward beyond the railway tracks, there are nearly a dozen cranes in the sky, each marking the spot where a new development will soon sprout up. But it’s between those rising buildings where possibility awaits: new public spaces carved out of unusual landscapes, community gardens for growing food, parkettes for kids’ exploration – all the facets of city living that bring us closer together and curb the potency of loneliness.

@SamEdwardsTO

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