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Photo c/o Atlantic Cities

Once upon a time, people only wanted to spend time in the city for employment and then retreat safely to the privacy of their suburban homes. But there is a new generation of city dwellers who choose to live in cities because they want be around creativity, commerce, culture and mainly other people, even if they don’t know them.

If this is true, why do we all feel so disconnected and lonely? Last year I wrote a piece on whether or not Vancouver was a friendly city. It generated a lot of interest and a few months later the Vancouver Foundation launched a study confirming that many Vancouverites feel lonely and disconnected from each other. Here are a few recent comments I have heard from readers supporting this theory:

I’ve come to think of Vancouver as the world’s suburb -  a place people go to be away from the noise and bustle of a real city, while still being close enough to do things. Vancouver has become a city of leisure, where people retreat to their private pleasures. Where are our public spaces? Where are our public forums? I think this is at the root of our unfriendliness, if we are unfriendly. We are a constellation of privacies without any physical or conceptual or cultural public space.

Another reader’s comment:

Overall Vancouver is not a friendly city. I have lived here for over 10 years and I can tell that people in general may be polite but that does not mean that they are friendly. It is very hard to meet people as they are very reserved or they believe that they are some kind of special entity of this planet, so nobody is good enough for them. Worst of it all is that it is just a head game of their own, because a lot of them look very lonely and unhappy.

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All Photos below c/o Vancouverish

Urbanist Jane Jacobs once wrote that people like to be around other people, yet remain private: “a good city achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment and help from the people around.”

The problem in many cities like Vancouver where people live close together, is that while we all like to be around each other, often we tend to stay very private and don’t try to connect with each other when we are out and about in the city. Instead, we prefer to stick to our cliques, play with our iPhones or retreat into the comfort of our condos with our televisions and the internet. Solitude is a beautiful thing. But admittedly as human beings, in order to feel connected to life and the earth we all need to just look at each other sometimes.

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Last year, I had a health crisis (post-viral fatigue) that changed my perspective on how I connect with everything - the universe, God, nature, animals, myself, food, my friends, family and people in general. I realized that in many of these aspects of my life I was disconnected. I was always very busy and without realizing it, spent a lot of time in my head - worrying about my future plans, thinking about things I desired, checking my phone, looking at my various screens and other social distractions etc. One of the best things I did to heal was to bring myself into the present and improve how I connect with people and my environment. This started with getting out in the world and going for walks around my neighbourhood (which, luckily, is very walkable with parks, shops, and lovely sidewalks all outside my door).

On that note, here are my tips to all Vancouverites and city dwellers in general on how to feel less alone in the world….and maybe even connect with strangers (including that lovely lady or gentleman on the bus, at the bar or wherever).

1.) Get out of your house and/or your car and walk - it is hard to connect with people and nature in the privacy of your home or personal automobile. Walk the streets of your city, hang out in its public spaces, spend time in local shops and restaurants. Before you know it, you will probably connect with someone - even if it is just a smile, eye contact or a few words.

2.) Be present - you may be out and about in the world, but if you are not present - observing your surroundings, listening to the sounds and feeling your feet on the pavement - you aren’t going to even notice the people around you.

3.) Empathize - it may sound clichéd  but instead of seeing that slow person walking in front of you as a nuisance, remind yourself that you are not an island. Every person out there in your way is a human being just like you with fears, desires, pain, and joy. We are all in this life together, so be patient and try not to think you are above any one.

4.) Look at people, not your damn iPhone - Twitter is amazing. All of your cool little phone apps are amazing. But, they don’t replace human contact.  I am always surprised when I walk the streets of downtown and look at people and smile. Some smile back, but many look away as if I am breaking the rules of normal Vancouver behaviour, which leads me to my next suggestion….

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5.) Smile - this is very important. Sometimes when I find someone that looks unhappy, I try to smile at them or send positive thoughts their way. I don’t know if they can tell or not, but I do believe that we all give off energy - good and bad. If you have positive energy, it shows. You come across as more open and people will want to talk and connect with you.

5.) Small talk - I am not a fan of small talk and I’m not good at it either, but small talk doesn’t have to be inane. I recently had a girl in the line at Starbucks ask me if the gloves I was wearing were from Peru. I could have just said “no” and turned away, but instead I told her I got them from a recent trip to Joshua Tree in California and we ended up talking about her trips to Peru and her Peruvian boyfriend. Now we talk every time I see her in line for coffee in the morning. Voilà  Simple connection made over a question about my gloves.

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6.) Express yourself through your art or ideas and share it with others - I have met so many people in Vancouver just through having a blog about city life. The simple act of pursuing your creativity or passion - whether through music, art, ideas, writing, etc. - and sharing it with others can put you in contact with like-minded strangers you would have never known otherwise.

7.) Volunteer - find a cause that you care about in the city (public space, nature, poverty, saving the Waldorf from impending demise ….) and get involved in an organization that represents your interests. It is a pretty big commitment compared to my other suggestions, but it will definitely help you and your city feel like a more connected place.

The beautiful thing about cities is that they offer anonymity, yet at the same time, a sense of being in the company of other people without actually having to know them intimately. The life and spirit of cities are made by the people who live there. And, the most exciting part of living in one are those chance, surprise interactions with strangers. It doesn’t mean you have to invite them into your private space, just look at each other, maybe even say a few words and share the present moment together. As Jane (Jacobs) says:

“Cities are full of people with whom, from your viewpoint, or mine, or any individual’s, a certain degree of contact is useful or enjoyable; but you do not want them in your hair. And they do not want you in theirs either.”

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