September 14, 2021

Why Virtual is not Enough: Craving the Contact & Connectivity of Public Spaces

Pandemic times have amplified something that is already a challenge in cities: Loneliness.

The Pandemic has shown the need for supportive structures that assist mental wellbeing and the ability to socialize with other people. Cornelia Oberlander and Deanna Manzer prepared an excellent study on  the connection between mental and social health and how close to parks and green space apartment dwellers needed to be.

This work was pre Pandemic. It is now the focus of so much work, that confirms the need for every apartment dweller to have access to green space within a half block walk, and the need for plants and trees within a “view” of a window.

In Seoul Korea researchers at the Architectural Urban Research Institute (AURI) have also noticed that buildings over 35 storeys do not have the aspect of connection and sociability within them, despite being the darlings of developers. In those buildings face to face and personal interactions appear to be more limited, and the size and bulk of the towers appear to contribute to anonymity.

The need for face to face contact was highlighted in this study by University of British Columbia’s (UBC) professor Yue Qian and Lancaster University lecturer Yang Hu. Their study can be downloaded for free here.

While younger people can get outside to walk, bike and socialize, elderly people who were deemed to be more susceptible to Covid have been isolated. In British Columbia, many seniors in long term care facilities went many months without having direct human contact from families and loved ones.

Previous research by Dr. Qian shows that face to face contact within a household shapes mental health. The more direct contact there is with  variety of family members, the better.

Using data from the United States and from Great Britain taken pre Pandemic in 2018 to 2019, and data collected in June 2020 the researchers found that frequent face to face contact provided better mental well-being.  The surprise was that more frequent virtual contact increased feelings of loneliness which was further exacerbated if fact to face contact was reduced.

This study showed that virtual communication is not a replacement for face to face contact, and this if anything it is an add-on, not a replacement. As Dr. Qian states in this article by Curtis Seufert ” digitally replaced older support does not look promising for the future but a digitally enhanced/assisted one can be.”

This also has ramifications on how people use the environment, and the importance of having spontaneous points of human contact during the day.  Checking groceries and goods out with a sales clerk as opposed to a self-serve station allows for more interaction. Using a bank teller for transactions instead of a cash machine gives the chance to talk to another person, and exchange a moment of sociability.

Transportation expert Jeffrey Tumlin talks about the importance of human contact in releasing the “cuddle chemical” oxytocin. That chemical is released when a person looks directly into another person’s eyes. He talks about that in the YouTube video below which is one of the most popular lectures in the Simon Fraser University City series.

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that lowers blood pressure and stress responses. It facilitates trust and empathy and enhances social behaviour like friendliness and helpfulness. Mr. Tumlin explores this in the video around 20:28.

This connection between human contact, mental wellness and wellbeing is well documented. Data is showing that making places for people to go to and congregate at are vital to citizens’ health. That’s why the post Pandemic reboot of commercial areas and spaces must allow for conveniences like public washrooms, benches and seating in outdoor spaces and easy safe access to clear sidewalks and storefronts.

No delivery from Amazon or  drop-ins by a Zoom call can make up for the health benefits of daily social human contact.



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