The Fading Sense of Community

In the mid 1970s, two-thirds of Americans attended club meetings; within a generation, two-thirds didn’t. In fact, involvement in all types of organizations has declined, as Robert Putnam documented in his influential 2000 book Bowling Alone: with racial groups, with sports teams, with congregations. And as belonging wanes and isolation increases, social ills follow: crime, loneliness, poverty—even mortality. (Loners who join a group, Putnam argues, half their odds of dying in the next year.)

When I meet up with Catherine Clement, VP of communications for the Vancouver Foundation, isolation and loneliness feel happily at bay. But even in late-afternoon sunshine on the patio outside the Pan Pacific Hotel, she holds the fraying of society’s fabric strongly in mind.

Clement was born in Vancouver and went through the local foster system before moving to the Okanagan at age 10; these days, she’s spending much of her time talking about belonging. The foundation had already shifted focus, from allocating money to setting agendas, when the economic slowdown began in 2008. (The community foundation, Canada’s largest and oldest, disburses about $40 million to 3,800 charitable projects a year.) In 2011, it found a new surge of purpose in investigating (and, it hopes, ultimately redressing) our region’s heightened sense of loneliness and isolation—so much so, that moving forward, all projects seeking funding stand a better chance if a community focus forms part of the application.

Clement studied psychology and stats at university; her first job after school was administering customer preference tests: does blue toilet-cleaner packaging feel more pure than red? Which is better, Beer A or B? As she relates this, the server stops by to take our order. Pavlov would be pleased: I order a Kronenbourg. (She has a lime daiquiri.) She left marketing behind when Ontario’s ministry of higher education, impressed with her ability to explain complex issues in graspable terms, offered her a career shift. Moving to Vancouver (for love), she continued in public service as head of city communications for eight years.

For the foundation, Clement is now evangelizing the results of a 3,800-person survey on questions of neighbourliness. Questions like: In the past 12 months, have you had neighbours over for a barbecue? (Seventy-three percent of respondents said no.) How much do mortgage/rent payments have to do with any financial troubles? (Seventy-one percent said some or all).

With several such gaps in mind, the foundation will next focus on identifying solutions from nonprofits, community groups, and individuals. Clement cautions that some barriers to happiness, though, will be tough to surmount. Sixty-six percent surveyed don’t experience discrimination yet agree that ethnic groups do prefer their own company. “This is consonant with Professor Putnam’s research,” she says as a trio of tourists stops by our table to pose for photos. “The more ethnically and culturally diverse a region is, the more it retreats.” Half of those asked believe that people who don’t speak English are uninterested in community.

“That’s the tricky one. We haven’t really begun to dig into it.”