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Cover: Neighbourhood Houses: Building Community in Vancouver

Neighbourhood Houses: Building Community in Vancouver

By Miu Chung Yan (Editor) and Sean Lauer (Editor)

Review By Pamela Shaw

December 7, 2022

BC Studies no. 216 Winter 2022/23  | p. 144-145

The text begins with the question: “What would it be like to live in a welcoming society?” (5) Indeed, this is all the more relevant given the societal upheavals relating to the pandemic, actions toward reconciliation, and wider movements that address justice, equity, inclusion, and diversity.  The editors address the question of a “welcoming society” through seven chapters and a detailed forward authored by themselves along with six additional contributors: the overall goal is to provide a detailed understanding of the neighbourhood house model in Vancouver and to deconstruct the impact of these houses on creating community within specific neighbourhoods.  The use of multiple authors adds to the authenticity of the work and creates a readable, interesting case study that could certainly be applied to other municipalities in BC and beyond.  This text would be of interest to community advocates, social justice proponents, elected officials, and urbanists interested in finding ways to create positive connections at a neighbourhood level.

The social history of urbanization is well researched, as is the evolution of Vancouver’s neighbourhood houses.  As the text unfolds, the paradox of feeling isolated while surrounded by others is discussed, as are questions of social cohesion, the relevance of place (and placelessness), and the importance of a sense of inside-ness to humans.  Each chapter expands on a different issue: social reformation; the influence of American settlement houses on the Vancouver case study; government interventions; top-down v. bottom-up programming and management; advocacy; and the notion of individual and collective aspirations for navigating one’s own path as a newcomer to a place. The stories of individuals who benefitted from their involvement with neighborhood houses are told in their own words: this chapter adds authenticity and depth to the text. Chapter Seven delves into an analysis of the major challenges facing neighbourhood houses and concludes that while problems exist, neighbourhood houses have served as a physical solution to addressing a range of issues for urban dwellers.

One potential issue with the book is that some of the research was conducted several years ago: the text discusses the results of data collection through a survey and other activities that took place from 2012 to 2014.  However, the findings are clearly presented and are not extrapolated beyond what they can actually reveal. It would be interesting to recreate the research in a current context, given evolving issues surrounding reconciliation, social isolation, the spotlight on systemic inequities and injustices, growing individualism, and widening societal fractures.  Perhaps a second edition could provide these updates.

As noted by John David Hulchanski in the introductory pages of the text, “The work of community building is not easy.” (xiii) However, neighbourhood houses have made positive impacts on place-based community building by providing services, creating a sense of belonging, and serving as a physical/visual reminder that we can successfully join together for social, civic, educational, or developmental purposes.  The neighbourhood houses reviewed in this text could certainly serve as a model for other municipalities searching for new (albeit historic) means of creating connections among residents.

Publication Information

Yan, Miu Chung and Sean Lauer. Neighbourhood Houses: Building Community in Vancouver. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2021. 296 pp. $32.95 paper.