City living: combating loneliness

As the number of single home dwellers continues to rise the level of social connection has seen a marked decline. Helen Parton discovers how cities the world over are working to forge a sense of togetherness among communities

People can still feel a sense of isolation even in populous and culturally thriving urban areas such as New York, new research has found. This is why across the world, designers, arts organisations and community groups are aiming to combat this problem head on with imaginative schemes to encourage togetherness.  

This worrying increase in loneliness amongst city dwellers everywhere is highlighted in The Social Cities report, from Australian think tank the Grattan Institute. It has found that people have fewer friendships and neighbourhood connections than they did two decades ago.  

Social isolation

Author of the report Jane-Frances Kelly elaborates: “Social connection has declined in recent decades, both in Australia and elsewhere. Groups that have higher risk of social isolation such as one-person households, are growing rapidly.”  Data from London-based consultancy the Future Laboratory backs this up. In its spring/summer 12-trend briefing, it reported that the number of single-person households globally is forecasted to reach 253.8 million by 2020, up from 202.6 million in 2006. 

But there is much that can be done to promote a sense of community. Public art, the Social Cities report says, is an important way to make urban spaces distinct and interesting. Even though the familiar landscape is only altered temporarily, it can spark conversation and debate between strangers, helping to foster much needed community bonds. Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago is a well-known example, with a sizeable budget attached, but, as Kelly says: “Improving social connection is not necessarily costly. In many cases, big returns can come from small outlays."

Other initiatives are springing up in various international cities to tackle this issue. The Outdoor Art Project, initiated by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority is a good example. It showcased billboard-sized pieces of art by 10 Emirati artists in public spaces. The work is intended to showcase Dubai's diverse cultural fabric.  

Encouraging interaction

Elsewhere in the US, temporary parking space-sized cafes inviting pedestrians to take time out to relax and interact with their fellow citizens are becoming commonplace. These pop-up cafe areas first sprung up in San Francisco and have now begun appearing on the East Coast in New York, too.

Adjacent businesses sponsor the spaces and the results have delivered increased community connectivity. The cafes often include plants and other foliage, providing greenery to the streetscape and offering more attractive views than a row of parked cars or delivery vehicles. Pop-up parks are also proving popular in the city in under-used or derelict spaces in areas such as Brooklyn.  

Meanwhile in the UK, the Big Lunch was set up in 2009 and since then nearly one million people have taken part in this communal dining experience. This is an opportunity for different generations and backgrounds to gather together to share stories, skills and interests and generally promote social cohesion. Its organisers, the educational charity The Eden Project have dubbed the phenomenon 'human warming' and it is an attempt to reduce the rich, poor and ethnic ghettos as well as forge better social trust. By joining together on one day, their theory goes, new relationships can be established throughout the year. The next one is due to coincide with the Queen's Jubilee weekend at the beginning of June.  

Health implications

Without recourse to some kind of social engagement warns Kelly, lonely individuals are at risk of damaging their health. "Loneliness has a very severe impact on health and wellbeing. It is similar to that of high blood pressure, obesity and smoking."  

In China, as an antidote to this, the government has focused on fitness as a way of bringing people together. In urban areas across the country such as the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, it has erected outdoor playgrounds, known as She Qu Jian Shen. Here local residents can take advantage of a range of equipment from stretching machines to flat benches. These facilities are proving particularly popular with the over 60s, helping them to feel socially included through the communal exercise activities.

"Whether our cities grow up or out, quickly or slowly, we need to give far more thought to whether we are creating places that encourage social connection or places that builds in loneliness," Kelly adds.