Our Cities Are Designed for Loneliness
Our built environment is not working in our favor. Urban planners want to change that.
Vivek Murthy, surgeon general under Barack Obama, and Janet Seabrook, a Wagner Houses resident and community leader. Image: Ann S. Kim/Ankita Rao
There’s a space in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan that’s not a storefront or an apartment. There are daffodil bulbs waiting in a bucket outside, and a yet-to-open coffee bar surrounded by potted plants. In the wide open main room are tons of milk crates holding up desks and separating spaces and doing things I didn’t know milk crates did so well.
Michelle Jackson walks me up to the terrace where she’s creating a rooftop garden. It’s sectioned in two, one part to grow things to sell, one part for the community here at Prime Produce, a co-op that is something between a community center, coworking space, nonprofit, workshop, and event space. And it grew out of an idea that many of us have felt as we navigate our cities alone: We are meant to have lives that intersect often and fully with other lives. We are meant to be part of communities.
“There’s been a lot of research around nature and how it affects mental health, so getting people together is very important,” Jackson, who has worked in community gardens for years, tells me.
Community gardens grow things that are frequently absent in urban landscapes. Nature itself, as Jackson points out and as dozens of researchers have chronicled, is a tonic for our minds. But the gardens also make for a few extra square feet in the city where people can come together. And this second part—the confluence of our built environments and human connection—is where many urban planners and architects are now looking to solve what has become a pervasive and persistent problem around the world and here in New York City: loneliness.
Loneliness, partly social isolation and partly our own subjective interpretation of our lives, is a public health problem in our cities: It makes our lives shorter, our bodies more subject to disease, our minds vulnerable to depression and other mental illness. And it’s pervasive: A report by the nonprofit research firm Kaiser Family Foundation found that two in ten American adults reported loneliness or social isolation, with about half of those saying they had one or no confidants. And in a survey of more than 20,000 people, the health insurance company Cigna found that young adults (18- to 22-year-olds) are actually the loneliest generation of all.
But as with most ailments that manifest in our individual bodies, loneliness is also a failure of our environments, and the powers who have created or neglected them. Just as stagnant water and climate change provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes to transmit malaria, so do our homes and cities and neighborhoods fuel the disquiet of a perceived solitary existence. Which also means that part of the solution is in the same structures that we live in, around, and between.
It's strange to think we are so lonely, as a people, that there is a conference about it. And yet, when I talked to Vivek Murthy in mid-October, he was in the back of a taxi, heading to catch a flight home to the United States after delivering the keynote address at a Campaign to End Loneliness conference in London.
In the years after he served as surgeon general under President Barack Obama, this has been Murthy’s campaign. This year’s gathering was aptly held in the UK, where the culture ministry has been tasked with coordinating efforts to fight loneliness, including interventions like intergenerational care homes. It brought together politicians, academics, suits, and physicians like Murthy, who has spent much of the past two years focused on what he calls an “epidemic of loneliness.”
“The realm of emotional well-being is not as understood in government and policy making,” Murthy told me. “We’ve been inclined to say if you’re having difficulty with your emotional well-being that should be something you have control over and figure out on your own.”
The loneliness that city dwellers are experiencing today, he said, is not rooted in any one phenomenon, though it’s easy to blame this experience on the breakdown of the traditional family unit, the mindless scroll-click-scroll of our phones, or the always-on jobs that follow us home through emails and texts. In the Kaiser Family Foundation survey, lonely people were also more likely to have experienced financial and personal loss, and serious illnesses that took a toll on their mental health.
If you look at it through the lens of our built environment, you might point a finger at the late Frank Lloyd Wright for launching his Broadacre City project, which mapped out what became the American suburb, pushing people out of cities and into sprawling but disconnected neighborhoods. Or Robert Moses, whose urban planning touched almost every inch of New York City in the 20th century, and who has been blamed for promoting car culture over people culture—making way for highways and parkways and streets but not for people to amble around with their kids in tow.
“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.”
Lennard said we have lost some of our cities’ most essential components, like the plazas and piazzas that once formed the center, allowing for people to naturally bump into each other, or interact while shopping, eating, and walking. Which is why urban planners and designers have started to look at the pathways, gardens, and building façades that have become staples of the urban milieu. In other words, they are examining many of the features we pass by every day without so much as knowing how such things influence our psyche.
There’s the scarcity of public spaces, alongside the rise of quasi-public spaces that are owned by private entities, as the City, University of London researcher Andy Pratt points out in a 2017 journal article. And there’s also some evidence that people living or working in high-rise buildings are more at risk for depression—one theory says it’s because high-rises’ constant motion can drive disorientation, depression, and other neurological problems. In cities like New York, there are also vestiges of a more violent time, and the barriers built in those days.
Janet Seabrook grew up in the Wagner Houses. From the spot where we’re standing one Wednesday morning in late October, in between rows of collard greens, okra, and kale, she can point to the three buildings she’s lived in at the public housing project in Harlem—one as a child, one when she returned to take care of her mother, and one where she lives now.
In her 60 years here in the community, she said she has witnessed things change in front of her eyes. People became more isolated and lonely. Her own family moved away, leaving her to live alone. “With the generations changing and people getting older, there was no real communication,” she said. “When I grew up here I knew the grandmas, everybody knew everybody,” she said.
Then in 2016, the city gave the community funding for some community initiatives, and one of them was a farm—similar to a community garden, but one whose produce then stocks a Saturday farmers’ stand. Seabrook, who works as a nutritionist at a nearby nursing home, jumped at the opportunity to work with the farm. And she says the mere presence of the farm, which added new green space, walkways, and benches to the center of Wagner Houses, has brought together people who had stopped crossing paths.
“Before this came I didn’t know who this kid was or that kid,” she said. “Now I’m getting to know the kids more, they’re getting to know me more.”
Public housing can be as communal as it is isolating. While studies have found higher rates of loneliness and depression in senior citizens living in public housing, there is also a multitude of research that chronicles the positive impact of affordable housing on health and well-being, including as a remedy for social isolation.
“There are things we’ve done in the past to cause housing to be more institutional looking,” said Deborah Goddard, a director at the New York City Housing Authority, the city agency that oversees public housing. “We can’t change that. [But] we can change fencing to be softer, lower. Our specifications no longer want institutional streetlights.”
Goddard and her team inherited one of the country’s largest public housing systems, but also one that had been built to address the shortcomings of tenement housing—the crowded, unsanitary structures that housed working class immigrants until the turn of the 20th century. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, when New York’s crime rates were skyrocketing, the city started to design the housing projects through the lens of law enforcement, and up came the fences and gates and security.
Some public housing designs have failed dramatically. In the 1950s, for example, the architect Minoru Yamasaki designed Pruitt–Igoe, a 33-block housing complex with identical apartment blocks and extensive lawns in St. Louis, in an attempt to revive a low-income neighborhood. But, as Charles Montgomery chronicles in his book Happy City, the project instead became infamous for crime and drugs. Having such a vast communal space didn’t help. In this case, the design meant nobody actually felt ownership of it.
In New York, Goddard said there is now a widespread understanding in the agency of how these elements impact social isolation and community—and new specifications and actions as a result. There are now more than 550 community gardens in the city, and more outdoor lighting in some housing projects, after Mayor Bill De Blasio piloted a project in 2016. Goddard said there are also plans to widen sidewalks and build more parks and green spaces, all of which have proved repeatedly to foster pro-social behavior.
While the new specifications hadn’t been finalized or released by the time this issue went to press, other organizations, such as the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health, have identified some key elements, like exercise spaces and mixed-use neighborhoods with both stores and recreational spaces in what it calls GAPS: green, active, pro-social, and safe places. “Fine-grain street fronts can also be helpful,” the framework adds, referring to smaller blocks with multiple buildings, as “long, monotonous blocks of featureless walls make people prone to ruminations (negative thoughts) and reduce their interest in social interaction.”
GAPS also points out that leaving low-income housing isolated from the rest of a city can make people feel depressed and inferior. “If you live in public housing and you hear all the time about how bad the projects are, and how people wish the projects would go away, what’s your reaction?” Goddard asked. “It shouldn’t be like that, we should be looking at quality urban design.”
People-centered urban planning projects have proved fruitful before. In 1993, female city planners in Vienna, Austria, developed Frauen-Werk-Stadt, housing complexes that placed working women at the forefront. The planners built apartments in buildings surrounded by circular grass areas, and complexes that were built as close as possible to key resources like public transit, schools, and doctors’ offices. The concept extended beyond these housing developments, where urban planners included larger sidewalks, well-lit pathways and alleys, and redesigned public parks. The United Nations touts Frauen-Werk-Stadt as one of the best housing projects for gender equity in the world.
The project wasn’t just safe, it was also built to promote community. Safety didn’t come from fences and guards—which can be oppressive and isolating—but community observation, including through open views of entrances and stairwells, according to a Newcastle University report. Children could easily play together within view of their parents and neighbors. And spaces that were just functional in other complexes were reimagined as “social spaces”: appealing courtyards, wide staircases, and covered walkways designed for interaction.
Murthy also pointed out Blue Zones, the parts of the world where people lead the longest lives. Researchers have identified the qualities inherent in these communities and found that a combination of lifestyle factors, social interactions, and life purpose are behind their emotional and physical health. They’ve also attempted to implement these values in other cities. “These are pro-social environments with an eye toward beauty as well,” Murthy said.
But given that most of us don’t have the ability to move to a completely new city, one that has been intentionally created for our mental and physical well-being, we are often left to grapple with the realities of our built environments, and the locus of control we have over what surrounds us.
For city residents like Seabrook, even a little bit of intentional space and design can go a long way. “We know depression is a disease that is affecting a lot of the youth right now, not just the elderly,” she said. “My generation was different than that one, but we’re trying to install that back.”
When Fabian Pfortmüller moved to New York City, he would meet dozens of different kinds of people every week. Interesting, diverse people full of different ideas and paths. But after several years he noticed something strange—so many of his interactions seemed transactional and, ultimately, unfulfilling. He knew many more people now, but he didn’t feel like he had any more actual friends.
“I think loneliness feels really ungrounded, like you’re in a place and you have no roots,” Pfortmüller, 36, told me. “There’s a deep fear inside of me, of having to go through life by yourself.”
That feeling is rampant in cities like New York, said Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist and design consultant. He said not only are we susceptible to loneliness, but our brains are not evolved to live in cities in the first place. “We are living in this really unnatural state, in a massive crowd of strangers,” said Ellard, who directs the Urban Realities Laboratory at the University of Waterloo, where he researches the effect of urban design on human psychology.
Citing Robin Dunbar, the British anthropologist who suggested that there is a limit to the number of people we can maintain stable relationships with (around 150), Ellard told me that cities can be overwhelming. But that feeling can be both healed and exacerbated by design, he added.
In his research, Ellard has observed that buildings that look sterile and impermeable make people feel unpleasant, bored, and less social. In his work with the BMW Guggenheim Lab, he has led walks through aging housing complexes on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and found that people were more drawn to building façades with lots of doorways, windows, and activities.
“If you can build a residential area where people are divided [naturally], they’re going to become, if not friends, familiar enough,” he said. “It’ll break down that sense of anonymity and isolation.” And that can happen even in high-rises, he added. In the Vienna-based Frauen-Werk-Stadt project, that idea was implemented in the housing, which was constructed in small groups of four instead of rows of indiscriminate apartments.
Ellard said that nature has proved one of the most powerful urban design elements, whether in cities or on the outskirts. Studies have analyzed how nature affects cognitive functioning and found that even photos of nature, or small numbers of trees, can help make cities more restorative. But there’s another layer to that—Ellard said people respond even more to green spaces with meaning (cemeteries or hospital gardens) than they do simply to nature.
It’s similar, in a way, to loneliness itself. The state of loneliness isn’t just defined by how many people you’re surrounded with, or how many people you know—if that were the case, city dwellers would hardly be feeling so despondent on our crowded trains and sidewalks. Instead, loneliness is also a function of our perception of the quality of our relationships and support networks.
The quality of being lonely in a crowded city is a particular one—it can feel like a failure of social aptitude, or an individual imbalance. But as one of the pioneering researchers on loneliness, John Cacioppo, writes, lonely people are no less attractive, intelligent, or interesting than their not-lonely counterparts. Instead, as he found out from a longitudinal study of Framingham, Massachusetts, loneliness can be contagious.
That contagion fits into Murthy’s concept of loneliness as an epidemic, and Lennard’s belief that we have embedded our loneliness into our built environment. But the magnitude of this issue feels a little more tangible, and in some ways, manageable to me when I recognize that we are not all left alone in deep wells of solitude, but instead are stewards of a few square feet solely because of where we live.
“This is a culture shift that will only happen in time,” Murthy said. “The more people-centered we become, the more we nourish relationships.”
Until that cultural shift happens at a larger scale, individuals like Pfortmüller are left bridging the gaps on their own. After recognizing his own loneliness and lack of community, the entrepreneur told me he started hosting potluck dinner parties where he would invite anyone and anybody who crossed his path.
Nowadays, he has turned his own experience into a career: He’s the founder of organizations like the Community Canvas, which provides a framework to build and design strong intentional communities. “A sense of togetherness is one of the most powerful things in the world,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how to bring more of that into society.”
Back at Prime Produce in Manhattan, Michelle Jackson said her own experience living for two decades in New York City informs what she is creating. Her rooftop garden is a careful work in progress, and clearly a personal and intentional one.
Jackson said she sees her role as not only spurring “activations”—new projects and ideas—in the Prime Produce space, but in connecting what’s happening in New York to a global movement against climate change. But in doing so, I noticed that she is also transforming a small part of the street into something that is instantly more aesthetically and intuitively pleasing.
It was a reminder to me that amid the larger-scale shifts we need in order to have healthier, more cohesive cities, we are also often owners of some tiny patch of the world. And the same design principles apply.
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