By Adam Vanzella-Yang
The experience of "home" is central to how we live our lives. Yet we take for granted not only its meaning but also the contexts within which it is possible. While housing is an important component of home, it is only one among many.
For the past year, I have been studying how Vancouverites define their experience of home in the city. Alongside a research team at UBC, I interviewed people of multiple ages, income brackets, and cultural backgrounds across town to identify how larger societal forces influence their perceptions of ‘homeness’.
The picture that emerges is quite fascinating. Home is not just a place or a feeling but also a set of processes and practices intertwined with social and environmental factors.
Overwhelmingly, people described aesthetic qualities of the environment as a key element of home. Nearly all mentioned a sense of contentment and well-being resulting from mountain views, proximity to the ocean, and ubiquitous greenness. If home is a refuge from the hardships of daily life, the city’s privileged natural setting plays an important role in fostering this experience.
But home is not only a haven with a vista. Home is also about routines.
People do not like to constantly reinvent where they do their groceries, where they work out, what parks they visit, what schools their kids attend, or what clinics they get care from. In other words, a certain degree of predictability is a necessary condition for the experience of home. Participants who described regularity in their daily lives were more likely to experience home in a positive manner. Feeling at home means being able to navigate everyday life with no major surprises.
Social ties are another important dimension of home. People need people, and respondents often talked about home in terms of family and community life. Individuals with positive and stable relationships with others, within the house or beyond, tended to see home as interwoven with important social interactions. A good marriage, time spent with children, or regular outings with friends were common themes amongst participants.
In contrast, problematic relations with neighbours or family members were almost inevitably related to a feeling of not belonging and a desire to look for a better place to live.
Last but not least, home is also housing. The sense of rootedness established through length of residence was an important aspect mentioned by long-time residents. For those living in social housing, the idea of finally having a stable place to settle after years of uncertainty was described as a major relief. On the other hand, poor housing quality and the fear of a forced relocation often jeopardized people’s sense of home.
To be sure, housing is not always home. Some individuals who were stably housed did not feel at home due to lack of local amenities, poor relationships, and feelings of not belonging in the community.
This distinction between housing and home is of great importance. Housing is a key component of the experience of home, albeit not the only one. Policymakers striving for effective and inclusive housing solutions should always remember to distinguish these two concepts and consider other contextual factors.
The main take-away is that home is closely tied to stability. Home is about inhabiting the world with a certain degree of familiarity, without having to continually rethink about where you have to go, what you need to do, and who you have to interact with.
The evidence from Vancouver shows that environment, routines, social ties, and housing are four key dimensions to the experience of home. The more stability one has across these domains, the more likely one is to feel at home.
So does the average citizen get to feel at home in Vancouver, given the housing crisis and the increasing costs of everyday life?
Vancouverites are struggling to answer this and recognize that their city is a battleground of a multitude of different home-making forces. The answer to this question depends on how individuals manage to stabilize these four dimensions of home. The current scenario suggests that environment, social ties, and routines continue to play a key role in their attachment to the city, and that people will fight opposing forces for as long as they can in order to call this place home.