May 11, 2022

How Do You Alleviate Loneliness in Cities? Promote Lingering & Connection

Walking on local streets or into commercial areas is a bit different in this pause from the pandemic. Many people want to linger on the street and just talk or people watch. That in itself is different in North America from Europe. Work by colleague Daniel Sauter in Zurich shows that the average stay in an urban park setting in Europe is over twenty minutes. In North America that has to be shortened to ten minutes to count as a park stay.

In Canada we don’t build urban parks and places for people to enjoy and linger in and feel that is an acceptable thing to do.  And that is to our detriment-a study done by Forest Research in the United Kingdom has found that street trees in urban places  “cut an additional 16 million pounds (24.4 million in Canadian dollars)  from antidepressant costs”. 

The Forest Research study goes further in noting that while the pandemic has increased anxiety and mental illness, 90 percent of people surveyed said that being in green areas with trees significantly reduced stress. Of course green areas and public spaces are also places that people can meet each other or watch activities, and that mitigates loneliness.

Sarah Wray in Cities Today writes about a report from “Key Cities, 25 cities across Britain that are shifting to a health first priority in the next thirty years to deal with “health, climate change, economic and technological shifts, inequity and social justice.”

Just as in transportation’s Vision Zero and the Safe Systems Approach that targets no serious injuries or deaths arising from the use of motor vehicles, this report recommends a target of ‘zero loneliness” to improve mental health and mitigate heart disease, stroke and dementia. The study estimates that one in every twenty urban dwellers is lonely.

Estimates are that “disconnected communities” cost the British economy 32 billion pounds a year (51 billion Canadian dollars).

That’s the equivalent amount to build nearly 13 Massey Crossing Immersed Tunnels. Annually.

One key intervention in the Key Cities report  is for municipalities to activate public space that is not well used, and redesign transportation systems and networks to encourage interaction. The way that commercial streets and town centres are designed can also be reimagined to include more walking facilities and places for people to just hang out: that is one of the strategies in Vancouver’s new Broadway Plan which is going to Vancouver City Council next week. Public realm areas are being reimagined to have wider sidewalks and places for people to to linger.

Another intervention included in the Key Cities report is ensuring that there is more participation in the design and planning process for streetscapes, building and public amenities so that communities can take ownership and feel comfortable using that space. How municipalities talk to citizens needs to change as well, with more face to face interactions and responding with patience and “kindness”. The point here is to enable “people to contribute in different ways beyond a message through the door or a notice on a lamp post”, and that a five minute conversation provides trust and connection.

In a talk last year, Danish architect Jan Gehl identified the pandemic empty storefronts as an opportunity to bring different art forms, workshops, craft hubs and community organizations back into underused commercial areas to spark reuse.

Other ideas include the development of intergenerational living arrangements and facilities, as well as creating local social enterprises such as cafes to bring people together to talk and gain trust with each other.

These ideas are not costly but build social capital and trust, vital for creating community cohesion.

One of the report writers quotes Jane Jacobs : “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

You can take a look at the full report by clicking this link.

The YouTube video below details another British project that was trialled with Royal Mail carriers. Seniors and others  were identified, and carriers connected weekly with participants to ensure their well-being and inquire if there were any follow up services the carriers could arrange.



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