Lonely by Design: How Urban Planning Can Intensify Social Isolation

Walkable neighborhoods, access to parks, and opportunities for social interaction can help reduce the burden of loneliness and promote community. But many of our cities aren’t built this way.

2 minute read

January 30, 2023, 11:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

In an article in Streetsblog USA, Jennifer Kent, Emily J. Rugel and Marlee Bower, Emily J. Rugel, and Marlee Bower zoom out from the traditional view of loneliness as an individual problem to examine how urban design and the way we have built our cities contributes to a loss of social interaction.

The authors, who just completed a systematic review of research on loneliness and urban planning, identified factors that “can help people make connections,” including “housing design, transport systems and the distribution and design of open and natural spaces.”

The study found that living in small or poorly maintained housing can exacerbate loneliness by making people less likely to have friends over. “More universally, living in areas with good access to community centers and natural spaces helps people make social connections.” Additionally, access to public transit and active transportation options can also reduce loneliness and promote social interaction.

The authors also see a connection between socio-economic status and loneliness, largely because people with lower incomes tend to have less access to things like long-term housing they can personalize as their own, walkable neighborhoods, public parks, and other amenities that help reduce loneliness and improve mental health.

Ultimately, the authors conclude that context matters, and “there is no single built environment that is universally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for loneliness.” But urban design and access to amenities can have a powerful influence on how people interact with others.

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