Designing Cities to Combat Loneliness

How architects and planners can build a better mental health landscape.

Do you feel lonely? If you do, you are not alone. While you may think it’s a personal mental health issue, the collective social impact is an epidemic.

You may also underestimate the effects of loneliness. The health impact of chronic social isolation is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Loneliness is a global issueRoughly 500,000 Japanese people are suffering from social isolation. The U.K. recently appointed a minister for loneliness, the first in the world. In Australia, Victorian state MP Fiona Patten is calling for the same. Federal MP Andrew Giles, in a recent speech, said:

I’m convinced we need to consider responding to loneliness as a responsibility of government.

What do cities have to do with loneliness?

“The way we build and organize our cities can help or hinder social connection,” reads a Grattan Institute report.

Think of the awkward silence in an elevator full of people who never communicate. Now think of a playground where parents often begin chatting. It’s not that the built environment “causes” interaction, but it can certainly either enable or constrain potential interaction.

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The way we build and organize our cities can help or hinder social connection.

Winston Churchill once observed that we shape the buildings and then the buildings shape us. I have written elsewhere about how architects and planners, albeit unwittingly, are complicit in producing an urban landscape that contributes to an unhealthy mental landscape.

Can we think of different ways to be in the city of a different architecture that can “cure” loneliness?

Taking this question as a point of departure, I recently conducted a graduate design studio at the Melbourne School of Design. The students, using design as a research methodology, came up with potential architectural and urban responses to loneliness.

Have you ever waited at a rail station, killing time without engaging with the person next to you? Diana Ong retrofitted the Ascot Vale rail station with multiple “social engagement paraphernalia” to promote conversations and activity.

[Image: Huy Phan/Unsplash]

Michelle Curnow proposed to convert railway carriages into “sensory experience cabins” that attract people to explore the in-built gallery spaces and listen to other people’s stories while commuting. Who said commuting had to be boring?

Tackling loneliness

Having a pet is one of the most effective ways to tackle loneliness, but often people don’t have enough time to care for one. Zi Ye came up with “Puppy Society,” an app that connects a pet with multiple owners. The dogs are housed in a shared facility where the owners come to pet the dog.

Denise Chan studied the Melbourne laneways and found many of them are quite dead despite being an icon of Melburnian liveliness. She reimagined the laneways revitalized with community plant gardens, book nooks and furniture to entice people to enter them and connect, say, during office lunch hours.

Are you one of those people who have a hard time eating alone? Fanhui Ding came up with a student-run restaurant for the University of Melbourne. Students get credit working on the aquaponic farms that supply the restaurant, which can be used to pay for a meal.

People also get discounts for dining at the same table, encouraging students to interact over food. Given the many international students who suffer from loneliness, her concept used cooking, food and farming as therapeutic activity.

Beverley Wang looked at loneliness in the aging population. She came up with a project called “Nurture” for which she designed a kindergarten co-housed with a nursing home. Designing spaces for storytelling, she brought the elderly into the kindergarten as informal learning aides, giving them a sense of purpose.

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Though it can’t solve loneliness, design can be an important tool in response to it.

A less lonely future 

There is an utterly different kind of loneliness that accompanies the loss of a loved one. Malak Moussaoui, taking note of this challenge, designed an installation that grows flowers on itself to be inserted into cemeteries.

Instead of just buying some flowers on the way, Malak’s design is meant to bring people together, introduce flower gardening as a therapeutic measure and give people spaces to mourn together. They might then meet other people who share similar stories of loss and connect.

Other students tackled more familiar cases such as designing more social interaction spaces in high-rise apartment buildings and redesigning supermarkets to make them places for people to visit on a Sunday morning.

The student work can be viewed here.

Moving beyond merely analyzing the problems, the research output shows that an alternative, less lonely future is indeed possible. Though it can’t solve loneliness, design can be an important tool in response to it.

This article previously appeared on The Conversation and was republished with permission. 

Tanzil Shafique is a doctoral student at the University of Melbourne Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, where he also teaches graduate design studios. He was previously the Design Research Specialist at the Office of the Dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas.

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