Should we design cities for loneliness?

New research explores how cities can combat loneliness—by normalizing it.

Abstract illustration showing people doing activities on their own in individual circles, such as going on the computer, or planting plants

Feb. 16, 2023

By Emma Avery

The loneliest city in the world?

Vancouver has a reputation for being a lonely city—in the media, at conferences, in informal conversations among friends. In 2017, Vancouver Foundation surveyed nearly 4,000 residents on social connection: Half of those surveyed said they found it difficult to make friends, while one in four found themselves alone more often than they would like. 

But it’s not just Vancouver. Pretty much anywhere where there are people, there are lonely people. In Canada, a 2021 survey found that more than one in 10 people feel lonely always or often, rising to one in four among those who live alone. A 2016 Guardian article titled, “What’s the world’s loneliest city?” names not only Vancouver, but places as far as Stockholm and Tokyo. Britain and Japan have since introduced Ministers of Loneliness to tackle the problem at a national scale.

It’s no surprise, then, that governments are starting to think about loneliness as a public health priority. Its negative health impacts include cardiovascular disease, decreased immune function, depression, and cognitive decline. According to one study, chronic loneliness and social isolation may be worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

We’ve long known that the design of our cities and homes can have a profound impact on things like belonging and social connection—two elements that are essential to overall wellbeing. But what if our focus on designing for social connection is obscuring a better understanding of the loneliness epidemic—and how to solve it? We spoke with some experts to find out.

Understanding loneliness

In 2020, Barcelona adopted an official Municipal Strategy Against Loneliness. The Strategy defines loneliness as “a subjective experience, the result of a personal evaluation of the correspondence or discrepancy between the quantity and quality of one’s social relationships, and one’s own conceived standard of social relationships.” 

This definition highlights a common misconception: Lonely people are not always socially isolated. They can be, but people can still be highly connected while feeling lonely, said Luzia Heu, a professor at Utrecht University who studies experiences of loneliness in different cultures. What matters most is whether a person feels alone. 

For example, people may feel lonely when they have to make a difficult decision on their own, or when they feel they are lacking a purpose or aim in life, or if they find it difficult to love and accept themselves for who they are.

Cities don’t have to be lonely 

In North America, the idea that highly dense environments can be lonely and isolating has existed since at least the early 1900s. 

We know now that cities aren’t inherently lonely. The way that we design our neighbourhoods, homes, and public spaces has a significant impact. Studies show that factors including walkable neighbourhoods and access to community spaces, green space, and public transit reduce people’s likelihood of feeling lonely. Further, there are many examples of how living in community-oriented neighbourhoods or multi-unit buildings can bring people together, creating social support networks and stronger resilience during times of crisis. Through design, we can not only connect people, but we can also help to remove stigma around loneliness and find more effective solutions for it.

Tom Brennecke has collaborated with Heu to explore design interventions to ease loneliness. His PhD research at the University of Milano-Bicocca seeks to understand how lonely people experience their city—where they go when they feel lonely, and how they cope with this feeling in an urban environment—while also debunking the idea that cities are inherently lonely places.

At the same time, his research prompts another question: So what if people are lonely? Brennecke believes we should consider the full range of human emotion in urban design. That includes designing places explicitly for lonely people, to help them reflect on and heal from this experience. 

“I think loneliness hasn’t really been on the planning agenda, and maybe it’s even strange to think that it could,” said Brennecke. “But once you start to engage with loneliness you understand that actually it has a lot to do with the way people go about their everyday lives, so therefore also with [urban design].”

Making space for people to be alone: Urban design solutions for decreasing loneliness 

Somewhat paradoxically, the two researchers found that many lonely people actually want to spend more time alone—and that making space for this need can help people ease and heal from their loneliness. Specifically, cities can create more places where people can spend time alone, together—in public spaces, on neighbourhood streets, and more. Such spaces can offer people opportunities to reflect on their needs and emotions, enjoy distractions, and increase their sense of connection to a community without having to immediately engage in conversation. 

“Studies [show] that lonely people often have a strong need to be by themselves,” said Heu. “So if we only have spaces where people can encounter each other, then we may exacerbate the loneliness of people who already feel lonely.”

We discussed the idea of exposure—being able to see others and interact with them if you want to, but not feeling like you have no sense of control. If spaces feel too crowded or overwhelming, people may feel uncomfortable—or choose to stay home altogether—particularly if they feel different or alone in their desire to be by themselves. In turn, this can exacerbate negative feelings, and make it harder to form new relationships. 

“This is not to say that we shouldn’t have meeting spaces or spaces to connect,” said Heu. “This is very important as well. It’s just that there are very different needs, and if we neglect or ignore some, then these people may feel very alone with their experiences, [which may] cause them to be lonelier.”

Design solutions could include features such as interactive artwork or places to sit and observe others, using small, round tables that allow people to sit and eat or do an activity on their own. Plants or other placemaking features can be used to create small nooks and make public spaces feel more enclosed. These spaces can also reduce stigma by making people feel less isolated in their experience of being alone.

Another strategy is to invite people to participate in shaping public spaces, a process through which people can deepen their sense of meaning and belonging in a community. While this process can help facilitate social connections, its primary goal is to create a greater sense of ownership over public space, so that people feel more connected to these physical spaces they spend time in. 

“[There are] different ways of being part of a community without having to constantly have active social contact,” said Heu. “[In our research], we saw that people often felt less lonely if they were connected to nature or to a space. You can feel this connectedness even to the community of people who use the same space, without necessarily having to chat with them.”

Examples of how planners can involve community members in shaping a public space include inviting people to help paint a community mural, offering a community garden, incorporating interactive lighting features, or asking people to suggest ideas for activities that could take place in a new public space.

Healing from loneliness

By better understanding loneliness and its causes, we can identify more effective solutions. That doesn’t mean we should forget about social connection, but consider that it’s only one piece of the puzzle in solving the crisis of loneliness.

“Social connection is still a good thing,” said Heu. “It’s still necessary. But people also want to have time to self-reflect, figure themselves out, and understand that what they feel is actually loneliness, and not just sadness or frustration. This process can be facilitated by having a spatial design that allows people to be in public spaces without facing social stigma by just existing or being there alone.”

Loneliness is an inherently human experience that we can learn from. By normalizing it, we can reduce stigma, while finding comfort in the fact that other people, too, have felt the same way. This is not to say that we should promote loneliness. Chronic loneliness can have devastating effects on our health, after all. Rather, the research shows how—on top of meaningful social relationships—people may benefit from access to shared spaces where they can be by themselves comfortably, while maintaining connection to a community. 

Ultimately, it’s just one element of designing for the full range of human emotion—whether that’s loneliness or social connection, happiness or sadness, or anything else that humans experience.

“At the end of the day, the city should be planned with all sorts of needs and emotional experiences in mind, for happy people, and lonely people, and whatever people are like,” said Brennecke. 

Learn more

At the Living Together Symposium, hosted by Hey Neighbour Collective and Happy Cities, over 300 people came together to discuss how multi-unit building design can foster community connection and resilience.

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