Can Urban Design Truly Impact Loneliness?

Some theorists want to design cities to reduce loneliness and isolation. Others want to accommodate them.

1 minute read

January 23, 2024, 9:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


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phpetrunina14 / Adobe Stock

Despite renewed attention due in part to the Surgeon General’s announcement that the nation faces a ‘loneliness epidemic,’ Alan Ehrenhalt, in a piece for Governing, notes that loneliness has been a perennial concern in American society since at least the early 20th century.

However, “Important societal changes pointing toward isolation have gathered steam in the past few decades.”

What does this have to do with urban planning? For some theorists, urban design and how we treat public space can have a significant impact on social interaction. For example, “Over the years, our parks have accumulated quite a few anti-social pieces of infrastructure: They have built unnecessary fences, placed spikes on sittable ledges and taken out benches instead of making them more inviting. Reversing those sorts of decisions would be a decent start.” Public and quasi-public ‘third spaces’ also foster social connections and offer places for people to rest and meet for free.

Others, like architecture critic Tom Brennecke, believe that cities should accommodate loneliness rather than change it. According to Brennecke, “many lonely people seem to seek social withdrawal and may, paradoxically, also benefit from being by themselves. … Public spaces should be designed to invite people to feel welcome coming alone.”

Monday, January 22, 2024 in Governing

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