Social isolation is simply unnatural to us as human beings, yet in most cities, more and more people find themselves in this situation. By now you may have come across one or more articles talking about the cost to a person’s health and wellbeing that results from isolation and loneliness. There have been many studies in recent years showing the adverse effects, from depression to a weakened immune system to early death. It is not only the physical risk of not having someone to look out for you in case of an accident or ill health, but the psychological toll - and its affect on the body in turn - of not having a support network and people to share your experiences with.
A lot of the focus has been on the elderly and understandably so, as this is an especially vulnerable population, but isolation is a growing condition across all demographic groups including single parents, young adults, older adults, people from minority groups, people with disability and low-income households.
In Vancouver, a survey of nearly 4000 residents placed isolation and disconnection at the top of pressing issues facing quality of life in the city. Across Canada and the US, more than a quarter of the population lives alone (and mostly in cities). Almost one-quarter of people in Canada describe themselves as lonely. In the US, 42.6 million adults over age 45 are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness.
Granted that living alone is a choice for many, that lack of social connections doesn’t always imply feeling lonely, and the quality rather than quantity of person’s social connections is what matters. Nevertheless, being socially isolated usually results in the lack of helping hands, is often at the root of loneliness, and it’s often not a choice. The conditions for it have been weaved into the design of most modern cities - suburban dispersal, the dominance of cars in public spaces, high-rise boxes in the sky designed without thought given to neighbourly interaction being some of the offending choices. In many cities, strict separation between residential and commercial zones has eroded walkability to everyday conveniences like grocery stores. There are many issues to be tackled in the design of public, semi-public and private spaces, and solving for them requires going against the momentum of city planning codes of more than half a century, but not tackling them doesn’t bode well for us.
To give it context, the focus of Housing for Wellbeing is on the redesign of semi-public spaces - shared green spaces and other common areas between a cluster of houses or within a building - to allow for easier and more frequent social interactions. Key to the semi-public spaces are pedestrianized inner grounds (parking is around the perimeter), comfortable and casual places to sit (especially in groups of many), natural beauty, accessibility and centrally located common facilities such that everyone is sure to encounter them in the course of daily coming and going. The focus is also on the private homes, in that they are oriented to overlook the shared green spaces wherever possible, enticing people to participate in any communal activities, and the separation between any detached homes is small enough to create the density of a cohesive cluster.
Advocating for better design choices in the public realm is long and worthy fight that is being undertaken by many brave souls. It’s a fight for more parks, community centres, bike lanes, public transit, pedestrian-friendly streets, accessibility and mixed-use zoning, It means designing cities for people instead of cars and designing streets according to a human scale. All of it factors into reducing isolation. I highly recommend the book Happy City and the documentary The Human Scale if you want to know more about these topics.
American Psychological Association. "Social isolation, loneliness could be greater threat to public health than obesity." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 August 2017