How can design help to solve the current social health crisis and make our fragmented communities more cohesive? asks Thomas Bryans

Lonely cities

Human beings are social animals; we need other people to survive. This is a hard-wired evolutionary trait that helps to explain why loneliness and social isolation can be so psychologically painful. Within hunter-gatherer societies, to be isolated would have had potentially fatal consequences, from both starvation and potential predation. Feeling lonely was a powerful driver to rejoin your tribe. Loneliness today carries fewer immediate risks, but its damage to our health is equally profound. Evidence indicates that it is deadlier than obesity, and equivalent to smoking around 15 cigarettes a day, according to psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad.

Loneliness can be particularly acute within cities, which have been shown to have a detrimental effect on our mental health and well-being, and increase the risk of major depression and anxiety. This is known as the ‘urbanicity effect’, and the larger the population, the greater it is.

The city is not a habitat that we evolved with, it is one that we created for ourselves. With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas, it is essential to ask whether the places we are shaping are helping or hindering our innate human need for connection. As psychologists Rhiannon Corcoran and Graham Marshall have argued, our prosocial tendencies exist in context.1 We are profoundly affected by our perception of the environment around us, so our towns and cities must be designed to enable and support sociability.

The contemporary urban crisis

The problem of urban loneliness is not isolated to any one country or culture. It is global and is being increasingly recognised as a crisis at both national and local levels around the world. Various governments, including the UK, are looking at ways to help address it. However, to do so successfully requires an initial understanding of how we got to where we are.

The agricultural revolution of around 10,000 years ago led to the first emergence of permanent human settlements, and eventually to the earliest cities. For many thousands of years, these cities remained small. It has been claimed that social loneliness within these communities would have been low, largely due to the intense cooperation and co-production that was required for survival.

The larger cities became – particularly with the exponential growth of urban populations over the past 200 years – the more they offered individual anonymity. For some this anonymity provided an essential level of protection, but the weakening of social ties that came with it led to increasing levels of social isolation.

Over the past half-century, the way we design and develop our cities has become increasingly privatised. In the 1970s half of all architects were employed by the public sector; now it’s less than 9 per cent. Today, most new public spaces are built as part of large regeneration projects and are privately owned. They are almost always economic in purpose: shopping is paramount; casual socialising is not. Private security can evict anyone perceived as loitering or undesirable. To be thrown out of a seemingly ‘public’ place inevitably creates feelings of isolation and exclusion. As Corcoran and Marshall point out, ‘these are not the places where new relationships can emerge and flourish’.

On top of this, Secured by Design, a police-led initiative that evolved out of research on crime in New York public housing in the 1970s, has generated a heightened focus on security through the principle of ‘defensible space’, leading to increasing social segregation. As Anna Minton, in her book Ground Control has written, ‘“Defensible space” in fact produces isolated, often empty enclaves which promote fear rather than the safety and reassurance which automatically comes in busy places, where people are free to wander around and come and go.’

At its most extreme this results in student halls where, for reasons of security, residents are unable to access – and therefore socialise with – other floors of their building. Leaving home and moving to a new city are both heightened risk factors for loneliness. Being in an environment that limits potential social connections as a consequence of design will only make this worse.

Changing perceptions

Psychological research has demonstrated that in places experienced as threatening or oppressive, people become anxious and withdrawn, whereas in places seen as beautiful, people feel safe and more likely to engage with others. The effect of this in cities is unmistakable: more attractive neighbourhoods are often those in greater demand, with higher property values and therefore greater affluence, while those that are visibly run-down are often the more deprived. This is borne out in health outcomes, with areas of deprivation being correlated with higher levels
of mental health problems, and tree-lined streets with lower level of antidepressant prescriptions.

Changes in the visual appearance of a neighbourhood can alter fundamentally the way in which people perceive the area and therefore behave. A study in Philadelphia that looked at the impact of abandoned lots and buildings found that transforming the lots into pocket parks and replacing doors and windows on the buildings led to a significant reduction in gun violence around those sites: of 5 per cent and 39 per cent, respectively.3 Where spaces are perceived as being safe, people are more likely to come out of their homes and on to the street, and parks provide places where neighbours can gather and socialise, strengthening social bonds.

In what began as a research project in its home city of Chicago, the architectural practice Studio Gang asked, ‘What if the police station became a community centre, with recreational facilities that young people could use without fear?’ In a place with long established police-community tensions it was a radical question. The project, Polis Station, rethinks the police station as a piece of social infrastructure; a safe space for local youths to play and socialise, as well as creating interaction with officers in non-enforcement situations, helping to build trust. While the ambition of the project is large, and could have implications across the United States, its success will come through small, very local, community interventions. The first iteration, a half-sized basketball court on the car park of a police station in the West Side of Chicago, has become so popular that there are ambitions to develop it into a full public park.

Even temporary interventions can make a significant impact On Lower Marsh, a bustling street to the south of London Waterloo station, a single-storey building and an adjacent yard space were overhauled by IF_DO and Meanwhile Space to create a new public square and a community-focused co-working space that would provide low-cost accommodation for local businesses and start-ups. Due for redevelopment about four years after the refurbishment, the local authority, Lambeth Council, was keen to see the building put to socially and economically beneficial use in the meantime. Such meanwhile projects can have an outsize impact on a community, in being able to create and provide space for activities and organisations that could not otherwise afford to be there. As a Centre for London spokesperson has noted, ‘Many of London’s more unexpected and playful uses of space have been enabled on meanwhile space because it was provided at low or no rent, from pop-up lidos to warehouse parties’.

Temporary interventions do not need to exist for long to change people’s perception of a place and to help build social connections. In October 2018, on the Draper Estate in Elephant and Castle, two consecutive day-long installations took place to encourage conversations between residents and other members of the community. In an undercroft by the entrance to one of the residential blocks, hundreds of yellow balloons were installed with parcel tags hanging off them so that people could write anonymous messages to others, both about themselves and their thoughts about the neighbourhood. The project was part of the Loneliness Lab, an 18-month study on how spaces can be used to create stronger social connections. Being unexpected and unusual, the installation disrupted people’s everyday experience, provoking curiosity and drawing them in; it created an excuse for conversations to be started with strangers.

Reconnecting with the public realm

Building a network of local relationships typically begins in public space, or in the threshold space between public and private spaces: think of parents meeting at the school gates, or neighbours chatting over the garden fence. At its most fundamental, combating urban loneliness and creating meaningful connections requires an engagement and a reconnection with the public realm. While this inevitably depends on the individual, the design of their environment – the context they are in – will affect their willingness and desire to do so.

The students of the LSA’s ‘Architectural Agency’ Design Think Tank interrogated this question over the past year, and their work (see page 68), considered the public realm as everything from the street to the lobby, lift and corridor of a large block of flats. The scale of the urban grid and the front door may be vastly different, but they affect both the quality and nature of our relationship with others around us.

In their refurbishment of the Park Hill estate in Sheffield, Studio Egret West and Hawkins\Brown were cognisant of the impact that small moves could have on the people who would live there, particularly in learning the lessons of the original design. The iconic ‘Streets in the Sky’ were narrowed (they were originally designed to be wide enough for a milk float), with corner windows added into the entrance halls of the new flats. The windows create the perception of eyes-on-the-street, as well as enabling individual expression, ensuring a character and personality is conveyed to passers-by, and creating a greater sense of connection among the neighbours.

While significantly smaller than Park Hill, Peter Barber Architects’ Ilchester Road development in Barking embodies a more radical act of prosocial design. The mews of six single-storey houses for over 60s is arranged along a narrow alley, with the residents’ private terraces (their only outdoor space) lining both sides. The low metal fences effectively turn the space into a large and convivial gathering space. As one resident, Pauline Branch has described, ‘We’ve been sitting out here in the evenings, singing together. It reminds me of an old East End street – I’m always seeing my neighbours.’

Collaborative living

While the need to work together for survival is no longer essential, the social bonds we can build through cooperation and co-production remain the same. Unfortunately, our tendency to engage in civic collaboration has been on the decline for decades, and even social gatherings are becoming rarer.4 There has been an increasing retreat from public life to the private domain; in the UK and the US, for example, as televisions became ubiquitous in the 1960s and ’70s, cinema attendance collapsed. Today, with everyone on their own devices, we don’t even need to gather around the TV.

The rise of co-housing over the past 25 years as a collective model for living is, in part, a reaction to that increasing fragmentation of social life. They are intentional communities, almost always with shared collective facilities, such as a communal kitchen and dining area where everyone can come together to engage in the sharing of food.

On the western edge of Copenhagen, Lange Eng, a co-housing community designed by the architect Dorte Mandrup, is a case in point. Fifty-four dwellings encircle a large central courtyard that acts as a communal garden, while in their community house, a shared 20-seat cinema allows for collective film and TV watching, and an industrial-sized kitchen enables collective meals to be served to those who want them six nights a week. Each adult takes it in turns to help prepare food every six weeks. They claim to ‘have optimised the time-consuming part of everyday life, enabling us to concentrate on doing things we love, as a community, as families and as individuals’.

Social infrastructure

Projects such as Lange Eng prioritise what has been described as ‘social infrastructure’: spaces that are communal, invite people into the public realm and allow for collective organisation. They provide greater shared amenities and facilities, but with the compromise – if it is that – of requiring social engagement and collaboration.

As the geographer Jared Diamond has written, cities require ‘the trade-off between individual freedom and community interests, and the trade-off between social ties and anonymity’. Over recent decades there has been an increasing trend towards favouring the individual over the collective. The costs of this are multiple: declining mental health, increasing segregation and extremism, and an environmental crisis caused by overconsumption. We are at a tipping point, and the way we design our cities needs to change.

Co-housing offers what George Monbiot describes as ‘private sufficiency and public luxury’. This is not a new idea: the Carnegie Libraries, built between the 1880s and 1920s, were known as ‘palaces for the people’. Ornate, grand buildings with vaulted ceilings and tall windows; these were not the sorts of spaces that their users would ever be able to afford on their own.

Such civic commons – from parks to sports centres, art galleries and allotments – provide opportunities that would not otherwise be available to us on our own, but also offer the company of others and a platform from which to engage with the wider community.

Communities need places like these to thrive; they enable individual connections to be made and relationships to be built. However, urban loneliness is a complex and multifaceted issue. There is no silver bullet that will provide an easy solution, and it requires extensive cross-disciplinary collaboration. Nevertheless, there are clear steps that can be taken. Urban areas that are visually run down should be the focus of programmes to enhance their built fabric, particularly when these are framed around supporting community groups and social connections. New housing developments should be explicitly designed to create prosocial spaces, and, where possible, co-housing should be promoted to support collective well-being.

As Winston Churchill famously stated, ‘we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us’. He was referring to the form of the parliamentary chamber in relation to the two-party system, but it was fundamentally a point about the way our physical context affects and influences our behaviour.

While our urban environment has the capacity to fragment communities and to make us lonely, it also has the capacity to bring people together and create happier and more socially connected neighbourhoods. Those of us who shape our cities today are creating the places that will help shape our communities tomorrow. We need to live up to that responsibility.

Author bio

Thomas Bryans is a co-founder of architecture practice IF_DO