Is Bad Urban Design Making Us Lonely?

Social interaction can be encouraged by our built environment. But it isn't always.

Image
Shutterstock

Where we live can play a huge role in our social lives. Bigger cities offer more opportunities for interaction, suburban areas prioritize private spaces over public ones.

But even small-scale urban design details can have a large impact on our social lives. Bad urban design is one of the major causes of loneliness and asocial behavior in Australia, according to a new report [PDF] from the Grattan Institute, a think tank focused on public policy there.

"Cities can help social connection, or hinder it," the report notes. "They can be so poorly organized that they are hard to get around – a problem not just for getting to work, but also for seeing friends and family and participating in social activities."

Urban dwellers in Australia have fewer friendships and neighborhood connections than they did 20 years ago, according to the report, which covers issues like accessibility and transit, suburban commute times, public spaces and the layouts of neighborhoods.

The number of Australians living alone is at a record high - singletons account for about one-quarter of all Australian households, and government estimates suggest that number will rise to 28 percent in 2030. The number of lonely people is also on the rise. According to a recent study, the amount of people who had no local friend they could ask a favor of grew from 11 percent to 13 percent from 1984 to 2005. The amount of people who had no trusted friends grew from 6 percent to 8 percent.

The situation is even more dire in America. In 1985, 10 percent of people reported having no close friends with whom to talk about important personal issues, and 15 percent reported having only one close friend. In 2004, those numbers rose to 25 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

These figures are from The Atlantic's May cover piece, which asks "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" The article shows that a wide variety of inputs or conditions can contribute to loneliness, and that even tools intended to make us more social, such as social networks, can have unintended negative impacts.

This can also be true in urban design, according to the Grattan Institute report.

"People often find ways to meet despite physical obstacles," the report notes. "Conversely, the best-designed spaces don’t guarantee connection."

But there are solutions. Among other ideas, the report suggests better shared waiting areas for commuters (perhaps with greeters who could offer real-time information on delays); improving public transportation quality (to cut down on commute times); parks and sports facilities (the report is particularly fond of mini-parks); and local events that bring people together.

Asocial behavior can't be blamed completely on poor urban design. But as the report from Australia shows, the placement of building access points and the location of outdoor seating can have a noticeable impact on how much social interaction takes place in a city – or doesn't.

Photo credit: Sander van der Werf /Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.