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A
Z
Improving social ties in our cities
Current
2020
list Article list

Improving social ties in our cities

When we established the Future Spaces Foundation in 2013, we wanted to explore the factors that help communities thrive, from vibrant high streets to secure, affordable housing. In 2019 we began a new research project exploring the relationship between urban loneliness and the built environment, asking ourselves how we might reshape our cities’ infrastructure to improve social cohesion.

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According to a leading psychology study, loneliness can increase your risk of premature death by 30%, making it as dangerous as obesity and heavy smoking. This is one of many alarming statistics we came across in our research into urban loneliness. We chose this topic for its tangible human element, its cross-disciplinary scope and its relevance to a central question of interest to the Future Spaces Foundation: what influences do physical spaces have on human connections?

We launched the project with a roundtable to examine how loneliness affects people in urban areas and investigate the role of the built environment in both prompting and relieving feelings of isolation. Attendees included designers, policy advisers, academics and community organisers, who together offered a range of professional and personal perspectives.

One of the main lines of enquiry was defining the opposite of loneliness – that is, the status quo we should be striving for. The group settled on ‘togetherness’ as the best description for social connections that offer a sense of purpose and belonging. There was also a significant amount of dialogue around the differences between physical proximity and actual kinship, particularly as they relate to urban living.

After a day of discussion and workshops, the group narrowed down some of the main contributors to loneliness in cities, including poor town planning, inadequate public transportation and a lack of safe community spaces. We used these insights as a starting point for assembling a report that explores the issue in detail, called Kinship in the City.

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Bespoke illustrations for the report by Thomas Hedger.

 

Along with providing background information about loneliness, including global statistics and information on at-risk demographics, the report examines the ways that housing, public realm and community services in particular could be shaped to facilitate better social connections.

Each chapter includes details on how substandard offerings can exacerbate loneliness, design concepts from Make exploring potential architectural interventions, and formal recommendations for addressing loneliness through the built environment. We also present essays and interviews that explore different aspects of the loneliness debate, and case studies that highlight international loneliness-related initiatives.

These various strands are tied together with beautiful bespoke artwork from London-based illustrator Thomas Hedger.

A resonant theme across the publication is the cooperative effort needed to address loneliness – how crucial it is that national governments,  local authorities, designers, planners, businesses, charities, public bodies, community organisers and more come together to tackle the issue. “By definition, urban atomisation indicates division, so it makes sense that combatting this – and in turn, the loneliness it causes – should involve uniting different groups across the built environment industry, from policymakers to analysts to architects,” the Foundation’s managing editor, Sara Veale, writes. “Working in collaboration with each other and citizens on the ground, we have the power to enact influential change.”

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Design concepts for potential architectural interventions to loneliness, including improved transport exchanges, community-focused retail schemes and shared housing developments.
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Peter Greaves also touches on this in a conversation piece with fellow Maker Chris Millar. Peter leads the Foundation’s student competition series, while Chris is the co-founder of a platform called Bubble; both have run recent design competitions around the theme of loneliness. “Loneliness is an emotive subject; people can think about it personally,” Peter says. “That universality is a platform for exciting, diverse opinions alerting us to things we’d never consider. That’s what’s valuable about exercises like these competitions. We get to see ideas we might not have stumbled across ourselves, and they inform how we respond in the future, especially in terms of design.”

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Other headline themes include the distinction between loneliness and social isolation; the role of technology as both a cause of and remedy for loneliness; and the importance of identifying the overlapping risk factors for loneliness that span all locations, ethnicities and age groups,  including income level, mental health and ability. As the report concludes: “With inclusive spaces for socialising and environments that nourish our welfare, both physical and mental, our chances of building meaningful support networks improve hugely. The built environment is a valuable tool not only for accessing social opportunities but also nurturing relationships, both new and existing.”

Kinship in the City can be downloaded from futurespacesfoundation.org.