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The Globe and Mail

In high-density Vancouver, residents must create connections to cope with potential crises

Lindsay Knowler, 32, in Vancouver on Saturday, is on a mission to encourage strangers to get to know each other better.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail's B.C. bureau is spending the summer examining how Vancouver's increasing density is shaping the city and its residents.

As the resident of a small apartment building in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, Lindsay Knowler lives among strangers she hopes would unite in an emergency.

The crisis could be as small as a skunk on the property. It could be as large as a catastrophic earthquake that could leave residents on their own for days before emergency services could help.

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"If something was to happen, we're literally in the thick of it with everybody else," said Ms. Knowler, 32, who works in the province's booming animation sector. "It would be less of a shock if you knew more faces; if you knew more names; if you didn't feel like you were surrounded by strangers."

Ms. Knowler and two neighbours in her building have been working to encourage connections in their area with the help of a small grant – $200 – from the city. They set up a desk at a recent community festival to make the case to bystanders.

"We're really trying to get to know our neighbours in our two-block or three-block radius," she said. "There are so many people living in that area, but we may only know 10 or 15 personally.

"Every person who has more preparedness is just a little less of a weight that falls on the city to help out [in an emergency]."

Crisis in communities is nothing new, but the reality of increased density has created some challenges in managing emergencies among people who are squeezed together. This is an especially pertinent issue in the Vancouver region, which has the lowest proportion of single detached houses in Canada, about 29 per cent.

"I think this is a really timely question, for Vancouver, but also on a global scale," said Katie McPherson, the city's chief resilience officer – a job that has the former city manager of emergency planning looking at Vancouver's ability to deal with crises and stresses.

More people live in condos, apartments and duplexes. It is a far cry from an era when many, including Ms. Knowler growing up in Ontario, lived in a house with front and back yards.

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The good news, emergency officials say, is that people living more closely together are in a position to help each other when problems strike. The bad news is that small incidents can affect large groups of people in such close quarters.

"Because you have so many people living together with densification, even relatively small emergency events can impact a large number of people," said Darrell Reid, Vancouver's fire chief. "Relatively small emergencies can actually become quite complicated events quite quickly."

And despite effectively living in a crowd, social isolation becomes an issue as people wall themselves off from their neighbours.

"As we densify, there often isn't the same social connectivity that there used to be," Mr. Reid says. "We also have, sometimes, really mixed demographics, each with their own challenges and concerns. We've got that lack of connectedness between members of these densified communities compared to the classic neighbourhood model of North America. That can lead to problems."

For example, he said, buildings can include older adults with mobility problems, as well as a potential for language and communication barriers. "It's a significant paradigm shift from an emergency-response perspective, because you're actually having the equivalent of small cities developing within the city."

Fire officials are coping, he said, explaining, "Vancouver is in a good place." However, he added, "It used to be more predictable."

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Dense living also poses challenges for police. Access to many buildings is restricted, Constable Jason Doucette said on behalf of the Vancouver police department.

Residents tend to have access to the front door of their residences, their floor and common areas, which Constable Doucette said is great for security. But people calling for help sometimes cannot buzz in police, so officers have to look to other residents for help. Those residents may not have access to the floor where the emergency is unfolding. Sometimes dispatchers arrange for those who have called to meet officers on the street. Police can look for mangers or concierges who can provide access. All of these options take time when time may be in short supply.

As a result, Constable Doucette said, police have been working for years on Project Access – a safety program, largely focused in the downtown core so far, to reduce barriers and delays for officers seeking emergency access to rental or strata-residential buildings. He said he could not provide a specific number of buildings covered, but noted, "It is continuing to grow."

The force has been working with the strata councils or owners listing emergencies that may require a police response. Key pads to buildings in the system are linked to police dispatchers, who can activate access with proper approvals. "It's very, very tightly controlled on our end," Constable Doucette said. "It wouldn't be simply to go in and check on a noise complaint. If it's not an emergency and we don't need to get in now, we don't use it."

Police always manage to get access, Constable Doucette said. "We don't give up. If we need to get into the building to provide assistance, it may take us a bit longer, but we're not going to give up because there is a locked door."

Ms. McPherson said residential communities have a "shared responsibility" to manage crisis, but it all starts with the individual.

"If you can help, you should plan to," she said. "Certainly, individuals have a responsibility to understand the risks that are around them and to go out and do their research and have an emergency kit, to speak with their family members and understand their plan in event of an emergency."

Ms. Knowler said creating connections is the goal of her group. "We were trying to make a big city feel a lot smaller," she said. "We were trying to make less strangers."

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