“No man is an island” said the poet John Dunne, speaking about the innate social need that we humans have for others. Whether it’s sought through the comforts of marriage and large families, or found in close-knit rural communities, social research has pointed to the warmth of interactions that you have with people, not the amount, that predicts how lonely one can get.
Loneliness can affect the emotional and physical health of its inhabitants, as well as more tangible outcomes like unemployment, poverty and wealth disparity. Though the link may be difficult to prove, long periods of loneliness can breed extreme depression and cause irreparable cognitive damage. And although technology obviously serves the role of immediate connection, it still has not eradicated loneliness. It may have even exacerbated it.
Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.”
As we grow more connected, how can we measure loneliness on such a grand scale, like on islands or in cities? And, what can we use to counteract the effects of loneliness in our environments? Feelings like loneliness, anxiety and fear do concern urban designers and planners, as it’s the design, or absence of, that exacerbates isolation. I recently finished reading The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, who explores the vivacity of solitude post-break up in New York. “You can be lonely anywhere,” she writes, “but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.”
Loneliness in urban environments has been documented through artworks dating back to early 1900s. More recent examples are the works of American artist Edward Hopper, who painted scenes from American society and life depicting solemn-looking individuals, musing alone in contemplation. Hopper’s works were a study of sadness and isolation, where the lonely figure was a dominant one. His works portray a mythology of America through various urban settings: the hotel room, the automat, gas stations and train carriages. He was “concerned with the negative effects of urbanisation” and the way it influences social life in cities.
You can find intimacy in bustling urban centres, often the product of dense living scenarios where cities stop sprawling and start growing upwards. Neighbourhoods—like the Centro district of Madrid, London’s Elephant and Castle or New York’s Chinatown—are tightly packed. High-density buildings and cities are a direct response to urban sprawl and growing populations, but they can isolate people if there are no built-in opportunities for regular interaction. The relationship between structure, environment and belonging, needs to be built into design.
But drawing bursts of people into small spaces is hardly the solution. In the case of Elephant and Castle, a site of multiple redevelopments over the past century, the cause and effect of good urban design on the local social milieu is obvious. Located in South London at the point of a major transport junction, Elephant and Castle created a central point for people to socialise. With long commutes a proven contributor to loneliness, the proximity of Elephant and Castle tackles this head on. But as well as a transport hub, the neighbourhood has a flourishing arts community and strong ties to English history. It also has a red velvet Elephant statue, balancing a white Castle chess piece on its back, standing guard outside the town shopping centre.
The town is undergoing a massive development over the new few years and is an archetypal example of strong urban design dedicated to hold onto its red, velvety history. It’s undergone several redevelopments in the past century: in the early 20th century, poor residents had taken to living in slums after the town was destroyed by heavy bombing during the Second World War. To house more people, developers built slab-block, high density towers, and in the 60s, they built one of the first shopping centres of its kind in the world.
Its recent re-labelling of town icons seems garish and tacky—its housing development is called One The Elephant and then there’s Elephant Park, Artworks Elephant, Elephant Social Market and Elephant Road—but it’s a good example of the emphasis on public spaces and mobility between them, as community building becomes the cornerstone of redevelopment. Artworks Elephant is a co-working space, built from repurposed shipping containers and designed to foster creative work, bridging the space between art and cultural intimacy.
Like many communities, Elephant and Castle has strengthened with successive new arrivals. The Latin-American population is one of the least noticed, yet biggest, migrant communities in the UK. Under the railway arches on Elephant Road, sits an entire strip of Latin American shops and places to eat. In 2016, upon hearing of the upgrading of the Elephant, the charity Latin Elephant (focused on promoting the inclusion of migrant voices in Elephant and Castle and ethnic communities) made a case to ensure they have a future in the area’s regeneration. One of the things they seek is a fully-recognised Latin Quarter. The group recognises the tension between the interests of larger corporate groups, and the idea that homogenous neighbourhoods can be isolating. Gentrification can be a rifle in the hands of developers: redevelopment can cause rent prices to rise, forcing out refugees or those of a lower socio-economic group, and small independent businesses are often ushered out.
“Loneliness is a desire for intimacy. Social solidarity is strong bonding agent, and thus, intimate spaces need to be built into every city. The balance in providing both public and privates spaces is essential to countering loneliness in cities.”
Loneliness is a desire for intimacy. Social solidarity is strong bonding agent, and thus, intimate spaces need to be built into every city. The balance in providing both public and privates spaces is essential to countering loneliness in cities.
Having a proclivity for solitude since I was a child, I actively assumed the risks of a lonely life. Spending too much time in seclusion, especially in cities where the bulk of work exists, strains your ability to make and sustain social bonds—and social bonds are what help us grow, stay alive. Hopper’s paintings perhaps project that strong sense of inner life—that despite being alone, isolated, without the company of others, you can be content with the company of yourself.
To finish on another of Laing’s poignancies: “Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability to find as much intimacy as is desired.”