Health & wellbeing

Small connections, big impact: a remedy for social health in cities

New research reveals a crisis of isolation in urban areas. Can micro-connections be an antidote?

Published on November 24, 2023

A visitor at a farmers market speaks with a friendly market vendor

Surrounded by people and still feeling isolated? Ironically, you’re not alone.

 

New research suggests that, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, urban areas are experiencing a crisis of loneliness and accompanying mental health challenges.

 

The 2023 Vital Signs Report, published by the Toronto Foundation, outlines troubling patterns of social isolation, economic stress and declining mental health in Toronto, corresponding with a long-standing and persistent downward trend in civic engagement.

 

But humans are inherently wired for connection. Research underscores the influence of social connection — not only on mental wellbeing, but also revealing compelling evidence that social support and a sense of connection positively contribute to people’s physical health.

 

Though research often focuses on connection to close friends and relatives, there is potential for another type of connection in urban areas: micro-connection. And, with deliberate effort, we can build places where micro-connection can thrive.

 

A loneliness epidemic

“What we learned from last year’s second-ever Social Capital Study is that strong social connections and trust go hand-in-hand with people’s wellbeing,” said Sharon Avery, President and CEO, Toronto Foundation, in the report.

 

The pandemic only magnified the pre-existing crisis of social isolation, the report says. An increase in loneliness and a decrease in social networks have been observed, with 37% of those in the city of Toronto feeling lonely at least three or four days in the last week this year, which translates to about 925,000 people in the city of Toronto feeling lonely at least three days of the week.

 

Why is this alarming? In recent years, it has become clear that social isolation is harmful.

 

“Research suggests that a lack of social connection can lead to an increased risk of: heart disease by 30% and early-onset dementia by 50%, as well as addiction, suicide and obesity,” said Pete Bombaci, Founder and Executive Director, GenWell Project, in the Vital Signs Report. “With this research, we can educate people on the importance of social connection like we have with physical activity, balanced eating and proper sleep, so they can prioritize their social health as well.”

 

people skating on ice rink with brick building in the background

 

An antidote to a crisis of disconnection

Taking the issue of social health seriously is just the start — how do we harness the power of human connection into a solution?

 

The launch of the Toronto Foundation’s 2023 Vital Signs Report comes alongside a call to action. The campaign urges residents to rethink how they engage with their neighbours, including suggestions like checking in on a work colleague who may be absent or supporting organizations serving the disability community. The GenWell Project encourages people to take their pledge to “be part of the solution to the lonely and disconnected world.”

 

Evergreen, meanwhile, is transforming public spaces into vibrant places that can serve as catalysts for meaningful connections, including micro-connections.

 

Micro-connections are the brief, subtle interactions that happen in everyday life. These small moments of connection can occur in various settings, such as casual conversations with neighbours and colleagues or even shared smiles with strangers.

 

Small moments of community and connection are what Harvard researcher Hanne Collins calls “weak social ties” — and they may be more valuable than we originally imagined. The study found that it wasn’t simply the total amount of social interaction that was linked to wellbeing, but that “interacting with a more diverse set of relationship types predicts higher wellbeing.”

 

That means that regular micro-connections could be the single biggest remedy to fighting social isolation and cultivating social capital.

 

graphic showing the term Micro-connections

 

How do we foster micro-connections?

Fostering social connections — even micro-connections — won’t happen on their own. In addition to the incredible work done by organizations to encourage civic engagement, Evergreen is on a mission to transform public spaces in Canadian cities for the health of people and the planet.

 

“As the Vital Signs Report shows us, we are lonelier than ever,” says Jen Angel, Evergreen CEO. “At Evergreen, we gauge the health of communities by the presence of public places that invite people to connect with nature and each other. Such green and inclusive places bring me hope. They are an antidote to our crisis of disconnection.”

 

Frequent usage of community assets and public spaces correlates strongly with better mental health, stronger social connections and a higher sense of belonging, according to the Vital Signs Report.

 

In Toronto, Evergreen Brick Works acts as a demonstration site for what is possible for public places in our cities — and that includes micro-connections.

 

The Saturday Farmers Market brings together visitors and vendors, who can connect over simple things like delicious food or the beauty of crafts; community gardens encourage strangers to work towards a common goal; free Weekend Nature Play gives children, families and caregivers alike the chance to engage in active, inclusive and seasonal activities while connecting with people and the land; and events like the Good Mourning Festival bring communities and cultures together to explore topics like grief.

 

Learn more

Visit our website to learn how Evergreen is building inclusive public spaces to provide everybody with the opportunity to connect with nature and each other.

 

This year, we invite you to give the gift of connection, such as board games, cooking classes, concert tickets or a donation to Evergreen, to help us nurture better public spaces.

 

In cities filled with people, nobody should suffer from loneliness and isolation.