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  • Serwan JN

Our Cities are Designed for Loneliness

Updated: Jan 14, 2019

Loneliness is a world-wide epidemic. Half-a-million Japanese are suffering from it. There is a minister for loneliness in the UK, the first of its kind. In Australia, Federal MP Andrew Giles, in a speech, said: “I’m convinced we need to consider responding to loneliness as a responsibility of government”.

The way we design our cities can help or impede social interaction. Those awkward silence moments in a lift full of people (mostly neighbours) and now think of an opposite environment, let’s say a playground where parents usually begin having meaningful conversations! Sounds familiar? It’s not that the built environment causes interaction, but it can for sure either enable or limit potential interactions.

Winston Churchill once said that we shape the buildings and then the buildings shape us. It is somehow clear to me that architects, though unwittingly, are somehow participating in creating an urban landscape that contributes to an unhealthy mental landscape.

Social isolation or loneliness is defined as “involving the cognitive awareness of a deficiency in one’s social and personal relationships, and the ensuing affective reactions of sadness, emptiness, or longing”.

Think of social isolation being experienced on a continuum with two extremes. On one hand, Some people experience loneliness at all times, as an inescapable part of their existence. On the other hand Some people may never or rarely experiences it. The first one is called Trait loneliness. For the latter, it is called State loneliness. This is caused by the circumstance and usually doesn’t last very long.

Being alone is not the same as being lonely as Solitude is necessary but when it crosses to extreme it is a warning that something is not going in a right direction and that it is necessary to reconnect with surrounding. To further understand it, loneliness comes in six different types:

1- Interpersonal loneliness: it is the perception of the self as separate from others.

2- Social loneliness: It is the feeling of being ostracised or separated from the group.

3- Cultural loneliness: It is the feeling of separation from others due to loss of culture or severe cultural change.

4- Intellectual loneliness: This is the result of feeling intellectually or educationally out of sync with peers, family or social groups.

5- Phycological loneliness: It is the result of being out of touch with different parts of the self.

6- Existential or cosmic loneliness: it is the feeling of loss and separation from alienation due to a spiritual severance.

There’s often a conventional image that loneliness mainly appear in older people. Of course it can. But the higher rates of loneliness is among younger people.

This infographic is based on data collected for the Community Life Survey (CLS) between August 2016 and March 2017. The survey asked participants “How often do you feel lonely?” with the following answers to choose from: “always”, “sometimes”, “occasionally”, “hardly ever” and “never” 

Those aged 16 to 24 years were significantly more likely to report feeling lonely. They were also least likely of all age groups to report “never” experiencing loneliness.

Are there potential and radical new ways to live in a city? Can we come up with -let’s say- a refined architecture and design language that can heal social isolation? Albeit, we’ve never been so connected, but for millions, this is the age of loneliness. Can we transform cities into a hub of gardening zones? And what if cities become forests?

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