Urban Loneliness

In 1966 The Beatles released a new song about “All the lonely people.”  Eleanor Rigby became a huge hit for them, but the poignant lyrics underlined the fact that even in cities, many people are desperately lonely. 

Fast forward more than half a century and UK Prime Minister Theresa May identifies loneliness as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time, and appoints a Minister of Loneliness to tackle the problem.  


Clearly the phenomenon of urban loneliness hasn’t changed much in the last half century. Nobel prize-winning Harvard economist Angus Deaton spoke of a global rise in “deaths of despair” such as suicide, addiction and alcohol-related liver disease. Experts are recognizing the outsized role that loneliness and social isolation play in these deaths.


A joint Kaiser Family Foundation and Economist study of the phenomenon in the UK, the US and Japan determined that more than 20% of adults in all three countries report feeling isolated and left out – and that these feelings have a negative impact on their physical health and work. It has been thought that this kind of isolation is most common among the elderly, but the study reported that more than half of those reporting feelings of loneliness were in individuals under 50.  


It is perplexing that in a society as digitally connected as ours, so many people feel disconnected. The study found that in all three countries around half the people feeling lonely thought social media helped, and the other half thought it didn’t.  The biggest factor in helping to ease loneliness was face-to-face interactions with family members and friends. Click here to see the full report.


As a builder and developer who specializes in infill, I have become interested in the way that we have built our cities, and how it isolates us from one another. The efforts of urban planners to make cities better for cars has made them worse for people.  


How can we have a face-to-face interaction with anyone when we drive into our garages and go straight from there into our houses?  There is no opportunity for what sociologists term “social friction.” We are unable to bump into our neighbours and strike up a friendly conversation.  


A generation or two ago, families were larger and houses were smaller – so it was not uncommon for siblings to share a bedroom.  Today, we are intent on providing our children with their own bedrooms thus isolating them from parents and siblings.  


Another recent isolating phenomenon is the increasing number of people who work from home. These people may be employees of companies but increasingly, they are solopreneurs working in the “gig economy”.  These people miss out on the social interactions of the office environment. We see the reaction to this in the growing phenomenon of coworking spaces and the number of people pecking away at their laptops in coffee shops around town.  


This observation appeared in a recent edition of Vice Magazine, “If we had deliberately aimed to make cities that create loneliness we could hardly have been more successful,” said Suzanne Lennard, an architect and the director of the International Making Cities Livable movement.We have built sprawling suburbs that since the 1960s were known to isolate stay-at-home wives who became lonely, depressed, and turned to alcohol and Valium.” How do we fix this?


In my opinion as a citizen, there is a role for government to play in helping isolated people to create connections.  I think any efforts in this area will pay dividends in reducing pressure on the health system. In my opinion as a builder, we can create buildings that include spaces that funnel people together, and generate opportunities for them to say hello and get to know each other.  A great example of a building like this in Edmonton is the El Mirador apartment on 108 Street.

The central courtyard has become a great gathering place for the residents of the building and a vibrant community has formed. The building itself is showing its age and is slated for demolition in the next few years, but it’s a great example of the Missing Middle and how, when done well, a building can trigger the creation of a community.  


Humans are social creatures; they don’t need much to prod them to interact with each other.  Here is a link to an Edmonton Journal article that does a great job of describing El Mirador and the community that the residents have formed.


I am currently in the design stage of a project in the McCauley neighbourhood that will have a central courtyard similar to that of the El Mirador.  Access to almost all of the suites will be through the central courtyard, and all of them will have a look onto it from the front door. Although it means that a portion of the site will be dedicated to community space rather than suites, I think it will pay dividends in liveability. Fingers crossed!


Keep your eye on the blog for more information about the project!