As the Earth’s population continues to grow, and our methods of communication become more varied and complex, you would think our sense of connection to each other would multiply too. The math is simple: more people + more communication options = more connection. But humans rarely conform to equations and, in fact, for many people, the opposite is true.
“There’s something about being surrounded by a crowd of people clearly inhabiting very social lives that can make your own sense of isolation feel so much more profound.”
Olivia Lang, author of The Lonely City
The media and the scientific community offer an endless stream of evidence as to the damaging effects of social isolation. Stories read while commuting to work or stuck in waiting rooms take up residence in the back of our minds. You may have read about the woman who was trapped in an elevator for a month with no-one noticing her absence, or the strange trend of hikikomori, which has whittled the world, for more than a million Japanese people, down to the size of their bedroom; a place which, with our current technology, you can survive in without ever having to leave.
While these stories of extreme isolation may seem far removed from your reality, the structures which create them aren’t. And, according to the researchers who study our people-crammed planet, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to call loneliness an epidemic.
The Physical Effects Of Social Isolation
More than just an intangible emotional state, loneliness impacts your physical health on a level comparable to smoking and obesity. Director of the Center for Cognitive and Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, Professor John Cacioppo, has conducted extensive research into social connection and isolation. In his book, Loneliness, he explains the condition has a suppressive effect on both the immune and cardiovascular systems. While stifling these vital systems, it stimulates stress hormones, causing cellular degradation and impairing sleep.
Professor Cacioppo says the issue boils down to a simple fact: humans are social animals. We come from a communal, tribal past. Professor Cacioppo sees loneliness – and the physical and mental pain it causes – as a sort of warning signal. The ache of loneliness is nature’s way of steering us back towards our ideal state: one of community.
Former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, echoes Professor Cacioppo’s assessment: “we live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.” To Murthy, loneliness should be treated with the serious attention opioid addiction and gun violence receive. While the condition has both internal and external roots, one major source – which we have the power to combat – is our built environment. In an interview with the Washington Post, he explained, “our social connections are in fact largely influenced by the institutions and settings where we spend the majority of our time.”
Apartment Living And Social Isolation
Ask any architect or criminologist and they’ll tell you, buildings shape humans as much as humans shape buildings. Many of the built environments you traverse every day have been engineered to influence your behaviour. This influence can be profoundly positive. For example, crime prevention through environmental design creates spaces which are safer for us to live, work and play in. However, sometimes the best of intentions can have strange and unintended side effects. The efforts made to allow privacy in the close quarters of apartment buildings have been so successful they have extended beyond the desired effect and inadvertently fostered social isolation and loneliness.
With apartments designed to fit large amounts of residents while still creating a sense of privacy, community identity has not come into consideration in the design process. This lack of shared purpose and connection has far reaching ramifications.
According to Sydney-based architect and professor, Kerry Clare, high-rise apartments are, literally and figuratively, detaching people from street life. Speaking at a conference hosted by Architecture Media, Professor Clare explained the infrastructure in and around high-rise dwellings diminish people's connection to public spaces and reduce the occurrence of chance encounters and meaningful interactions.
While Clare is critical of high-density apartment buildings, it is important to avoid condemning them all together. A 2010 study – Living Well in Greater Density – found people living in buildings that were well-designed, with an inclusive atmosphere, experienced a positive effect on both their mental and physical health. In contrast, poorly designed buildings which did not foster social interaction were strikingly correlated with poor outcomes.
Our apartment towers may be throwing a dark shadow over our communities, but it’s not all bad news. Even as an individual, you have the power to ease the isolation and restore the balance of privacy and community every human needs. Knowing you have the capability is one thing, but figuring out where and how to start can be tricky, even for the experts.
Getting It Wrong: East Harlem Housing Project
Before looking at some of the wonderful projects being undertaken all over the world to combat social isolation, it’s worth having a quick look at how not to solve the problem. Many planners have made the mistake of doing research and then applying the findings in a one-size-fits-all approach. As far back as 1961, commentators have been assessing our attempts at building community through environmental design. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, journalist and activist, Jane Jacobs described one such misguided endeavour.
“In New York’s East Harlem there is a housing project with a conspicuous rectangular lawn which became an object of hatred to the project tenants. A social worker…was astonished…at how much the tenants despised it and urged it to be done away with... Finally, one tenant made this pronouncement: Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place… We don’t have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper… Nobody cared what we needed. But the big men come and look at that grass and say "Isn’t it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!"
While exposure to nature may be good for us, and the lawn may have been a beautiful addition to the neighbourhood, it clearly was not the prime concern for that community (this is why Commune + Co work with neighbourhoods and communities to help design projects which suits your unique needs and wants).
Getting It Right: Vancouver Community Engagement Project
In 2012, the Vancouver Foundation surveyed a 3,841 strong, varied sample of their city’s population. According to their study (Connections and Engagement), twenty percent of people who lived in detached homes reported feeling lonely. For those living in high-rise apartments, that figure nearly doubled to forty percent. Cross-referencing these findings with other factors, the researchers found that the loneliest people also reported poorer health and had a greater incident of other social barriers.
Beyond the issue of loneliness, there are other practical implications to social isolation. A cohesive neighbourhood is one which also has the resilience to band together during emergency events. With NASA warning our changing climate will bring with it extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, this is yet another reason to foster a sense of community with your neighbours.
This was the focus of a 2014 pilot project which developed its ideas from the Vancouver Foundation’s research. The Neighbourhood Social Resilience Project targeted rental apartment buildings, hosting vertical block parties with themes chosen by the residents. The concept was designed to initiate engagement and provide the residents with tools to continue the events. Often all it takes is an ice-breaker for faces to become familiar and a sense of comfort with neighbours to start settling in.
Art That Disturbs But In A Good Way
Urban planner, designer and artist, Candy Chang, takes her work to public spaces all over the world where she engages with communities to create projects which traverse the strange intersection between mental health and the built environment.
The simplest, sweetest, and most globally accessible of Chang’s creations are her ‘Please Disturb’ doorknob hangers. Initially circulated in U.S Magazine, Good, the hangers are now available to download and print from Chang’s website. They were designed to create a visual invitation for neighbours to approach each other, once again, breaking the ice and encouraging interaction and a sense of community.
Perfect for apartment buildings, where neighbours pass each other’s doors every day, the hangers can be customised to list items a neighbour has available to lend and items they would love to borrow. There’s even space for you to stipulate the times you’re happy to be disturbed.
With this simple yet powerful project, Chang’s intent is to rectify the excessive focus on privacy within apartment buildings. The hangers invite interaction while also allowing people to maintain whatever boundaries they desire.
You’ll notice none of these initiatives have been designed to drag us back to the days of dropping in on the neighbours unannounced to borrow sugar and hear the latest neighbourhood gossip. The best way to combat the issue of social isolation is to move with the times, flow with our fast-paced world and rapidly changing technology, but offer people a helping hand to step out of the current when they need to and connect with the humans around them.