Kinship in the City: Urban Loneliness and the Built Environment

Working with experts across the built environment industry, this report from the Future Spaces Foundation explores how the places where we live, work and socialise can both cause and combat loneliness.

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

*This resource is about loneliness and the built environment. It is not specifically about the High Street, but has been included in response to requests for more studies/information about this topic, as well as linking to priorities for High Street vitality and viability around innovation, accessibility and recreational space.

The physical backdrop to our lives – the places where we live, work and socialise – has a huge effect on how we feel day to day. From inspiring workplaces to nourishing green spaces, there are many ways urban landscapes can foster positive mental landscapes. This report by the Future Spaces Foundation examines how cities let us down on this front, inadvertently isolating people and exacerbating feelings of loneliness across a range of demographics. By the same measure, it also explores the power that cities have to lift us up, promoting unity and kinship through considered design, policy and social enterprise.

Loneliness can affect anyone, no matter their age or setting, and can express itself as a momentary feeling or a chronic state. The quality of someone’s living conditions can be a major factor, as well as their health, financial and social circumstances. Global research has shown that loneliness can increase someone’s risk of premature death by 30% and the following demographics are particularly at risk, especially within cities.

SENIOR CITIZENS - According to a 2016 report by think tank Demos, people over 80 are twice as likely as other age groups to experience severe loneliness caused by bereavement, retirement or poor health. This is a serious global public health concern, given the trend of ageing populations and rising proportions of older adults living alone.

YOUNG ADULTS - A nationwide survey in the UK recently found that 40% of people aged 16 to 24 feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘very often’. Young mothers can be particularly vulnerable to loneliness if their income makes childcare difficult, while renters might feel insecure in their tenancy and have little sense of belonging to their neighbourhood.

PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES - According to the charity Sense, around half of disabled people feel lonely, with one in four experiencing these feelings every day. Inadequate public services – from insufficient social care to inaccessible public transport – play a significant role in preventing people with disabilities from participating in their communities.

As mentioned above, the health consequences of loneliness are immense, with the medical profession linking it to higher risks for heart disease, depression, eating disorders and cognitive decline. These in turn have a serious impact on economies around the world, for example, the Centre for Economics and Business Research has estimated that disconnected communities could be costing the UK economy £32 billion every year.

So how can our built environment across our towns and cities do a better job of preventing a condition that affects around 9 million people in the UK and is considered to be as as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day?

RECOMMENDATIONS

Following a roundtable with designers, policy advisers, academics and community organisers, the Future Spaces Foundation proposed the following interventions across housing, public space and local services to improve loneliness and social isolation.

HOUSING

  • National planning frameworks should earmark special funding for housing schemes designed to reduce loneliness among residents.
  • Local authorities and private developers should invest in measures that keep neighbourhoods safe, approachable and accessible.
  • Architects and urban designers should explore and embrace shared living models that facilitate interaction and relationships among residents.
  • Governments should fund research into the impact of housing schemes that seek to reduce loneliness and allocate funding for programmes aimed at addressing the issue.
  • Renter’s rights should be improved around tenure and longevity, and relaxed pet policies should be introduced to help foster companionship in vulnerable demographics.

PUBLIC SPACE

  • Local authorities and urban designers should actively seek to design third places – markets, gardens, plazas, parks and playgrounds – into urban neighbourhoods so communities have safe, vibrant public places which they can spend time in.
  • Governments should offer people a direct say in their area’s social resources by specifying higher levels of community engagement as a requirement for planning consent in public realm projects.
  • Community spaces should include social events programmes that enable them to be used to their full potential, with local authorities teaming up with local businesses to organise activities aimed at improving people’s social networks (food markets, pop-up shops, craft fairs and exercise classes).
  • Local authorities and planners should actively support and safeguard community spaces. Any decisions to change these spaces should seek to promote social cohesion and factor in any potential loss of social resources.

LOCAL SERVICES

  • Urban designers and planners should engage local communities when determining where to locate new public services, from transport exchanges to high street expansions.
  • Consultation exercises should be open not just to appointed community representatives but any local resident who wants to attend.
  • Transport authorities should prioritise strategies to expand and develop public transport networks in a way that supports mobility and social cohesion.
  • Local authorities should work with public bodies and social campaigns to identify the demographics at risk of loneliness in their area and structure services like healthcare, social care and transport around these particular groups.
  • Targeted cost-benefit analyses should be commissioned to help governments, public bodies and charities determine the most cost effective and socially beneficial means for addressing loneliness in urban communities.

 

CASE STUDIES

The report concludes with a range of case studies highlighting projects and programmes which have successfully tackled the issue of loneliness in vulnerable communities.

The Loneliness Lab - An 18-month project between property group Lendlease and non-profit Collectively to tackle loneliness in London. Solutions that emerged include ‘Hack Your Halls’, which seeks to reshape student accommodation to eliminate loneliness, and ‘Craftmoves’, which looks to use public transport to facilitate meaningful interactions between strangers.

The People’s Kitchen - Founded in East London in 2011, the idea was to create an inclusive space where people from different backgrounds share skills and stories while transforming food waste into community feasts. In 2019 the organisation secured a lease on a former café in Thames Barrier Park with the aim of transforming it into a permanent community hub and café focused on food and wellbeing.

Men’s Sheds - The idea of ‘men’s sheds’ originated in Australia in the 1990s to provide a comfortable, encouraging ‘backyard’ space for men to interact and bond. Today there are hundreds of men’s sheds across Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the United States and South Asia. These have played an important role in reducing loneliness and improving the wellbeing of thousands of men around the world.