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It's Your Choice to Be Alone in Vancouver

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The esteemed Vancouver Foundation is among our city's finest philanthropical organizations. For decades they have directed funds into worthy projects that have made Vancouver a better place to live. In the past year they have drawn attention to themselves by releasing the results of surveys on public engagement.

The survey results were interpreted to suggest that Vancouverites are increasingly isolated. The expression used by the organization was that we are "alone together." The discussion was kicked off when Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason first commented on the foundation's findings. He pointed to the lowly garage door opener as a culprit, suggesting that by not even getting out of our cars before arriving home, we never have to connect with our communities.

It was a simple and poignant example, but in my view, misleading if you view the city as a whole. The web of community connections do not only happen on the street. They happen in a multitude of organizations, gathering spaces, activities and educational institutions. Today, we're even connected through the 140 characters Twitter allots us.

If you're alone in Vancouver, it's your choice.

My Fraser Street area community group is a direct recipient of the foundation's neighbourhood matching grants. The organization's stated long-term objective is "healthy, vibrant, livable communities" and we're grateful for their contributions. But is it true to say Vancouver is a city full of lonely hearts?

There is no question that modern society throws up a lot of barriers. In today's condo towers we have elevators that only let you off on your own floor. We construct houses so large with yards so small, the odds that you'll ever talk over your fence to a neighbour are practically nil. A whole bunch of us send our kids out of catchment for their educations, or hop in the car as a regular practice instead of taking the short walk to school.

On the latter point, I recently met with someone who lives in my community who sends his kids to a school across town. He lamented the lost time and lost connections with neighbours over the past several years. If he could do it all over again, he might have reconsidered and enrolled the kids in the local school.

I have never wanted to live in a community where I know no one. It is why I have continually become involved in activities that bring us together. Before last weekend I sent around an email suggesting we stage an impromptu, late summer community barbecue. I immediately found someone else willing to pitch in. Our community group has its own bank account with some funds left in it. For about $150 worth of food and drinks, and $20 worth of propane we were able host a few dozen neighbours for a boulevard meal.

We spread the word through a Facebook group, a web page, a Yahoo email list, and by hanging a few posters up around the neighbourhood. In other words it cost us pennies to promote it. Yet what we got in return is a much stronger fibre holding together our community. I have no doubt that new friendships will take hold because of an occasion like this.

There is nothing extraordinary about what we did over here on Fraser Street. It could happen in any corner of our city if you want to make it happen. A little free food is the best enticement.

There is, I believe, something every city can do -- including Vancouver -- to enhance community connections. We must make the experience of walking as safe and pleasurable as possible to woo back pedestrians. We have yet to treasure our public spaces as much as we should here. There are some exceptionally pretty boulevards and greenways around Vancouver, but we can do much more to make our public spaces sparkle.

Give someone an excuse to walk down the street, share a smile or say hello, the city suddenly feels much less impersonal.

Vancouver is not a city full of sad sacks sitting in their living rooms alone. However, there is a risk if we start to believe it. There are plenty of ways that we already connect as families, friends and neighbours. Let's celebrate that instead.