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

Man sitting on wooden bench under tall streetlight at night.

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

Aerial view of homes on beach in Maui, Hawaii

Hawaii Passes First Legislation Regulating Short-Term Rentals Statewide

The new law will give counties the power to limit number or short-term rentals and convert existing short-term rental units back into long-term residential housing.

May 13, 2024 - USA Today

Google office building in Virginia.

Virginia Data Centers Draining State’s Water Supply

Being the world’s largest data center hub is having a severe impact on local water resources.

May 9, 2024 - Grist

Entrance to a drive-through car wash at night with green 'Enter' sign.

Ohio Towns Move to Ban New Car Washes

City officials in northeast Ohio are putting limits on how many car wash facilities can open in their towns.

May 16, 2024 - News 5 Cleveland

Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state.

Northwest Power Demand Could Surge as Data Centers, Transportation Electrification Ramps Up

New estimates project a steady increase in electricity demand due to population growth, data centers, and the shift to electric power in homes, buildings, and transportation.

May 17 - Governing

Blurred traffic speeding by on freeway with Los Angeles skyline in background.

California Testing Per-Mile Gas Tax Alternatives

A summer pilot program will test the fairness and efficacy of collection mechanisms for mileage-based fee options.

May 17 - Newsweek

Close-up of 'Pay rent' note in red marker on day 1 of monthly calendar.

After Months of Decreases, Rents Nationwide Are Going Up

Average rents rose by $12 around the country so far this year.

May 17 - Smart Cities Dive

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.