Zach McDade of the Urban Institute recently asked whether loneliness should be a public policy concern. His essay got me thinking about the loneliness I experienced over the past decade while moving to and living in several cities, both in the US and abroad. I realized that each city offered different challenges or opportunities for mitigating loneliness, and those differences often depended on the infrastructure and establishments that existed in each place.
The loneliness that comes with moving to a new place extends beyond being far from family, making new friends, and building a new professional community. I am lucky that I’ve had access to an automatic community in each new place I’ve lived (mainly through work or school). Even so, it takes time to develop a connection to a place, a sense of camaraderie with strangers. I’ve found that the disconnect that exists before these bonds form plays a large role in the loneliness of relocation.
Considering my own attempts to overcome loneliness in new places, I propose that planners, policy makers, designers, and entrepreneurs may be able to abate loneliness by concentrating on three main factors:
* Pedestrian activity. There’s nothing like walking past others on the street, seeing their faces, observing their clothes, and wondering what they have in their bags, to foster a sense of community. When I lived in Paris I spent hours walking around the city on weekends. Moving slowly through my new city and experiencing life from the sidewalk allowed me to develop a strong connection to the anonymous collective of other pedestrians and to the built environment that I explored on foot. When I lived in Philadelphia I passed some of the same people every day as I walked to work. We never spoke, but seeing the same figures over and over – and realizing that they saw me, too – helped me understand that, in some ways, we were all accountable to one another. That sense of responsibility to the collective community and to my urban environment reliably alleviated feelings of loneliness that I might have been experiencing.
* Visually varied commercial establishments. Irvine, California, was the loneliest place I’ve ever lived, even though I had a strong group of friends and colleagues there. I attribute this loneliness in part to the pre-fab placelessness of the city’s monotonous upscale strip malls and the chain stores they contained. Nearly indistinguishable from establishments I’d visited elsewhere, they offered a false promise of familiarity. Instead of connecting me to a known setting, they ultimately proved even more isolating because they bore no unique connection to the specific place where they appeared. When I ventured to Long Beach or Costa Mesa, I found shops and eateries that didn’t look or feel like they were any other store in any other city. There, my loneliness would begin to peel away, even as I sat by myself.
* Public Transportation. It is easy to feel cut off from your broader surroundings when cooped up in the bubble of a personal vehicle. Traveling with others, seeing the city together, facilitates a feeling of community. In Paris, New York, Philadelphia, and Austin, I developed a sense of belonging to the place by shuffling on and off the metro, the train, or the bus with others. Especially because my fellow travelers were strangers, it was meaningful to think that we similarly experienced the odors or the panhandlers, the last minute schedule change or the conductor’s comical way of announcing the next stop. It is hard to feel isolated when you and a stranger share a befuddled look as the man on the other side of the subway car starts clipping his nails in public.
Although it is ultimately up to individuals to choose to walk, to dine at a unique restaurant, or to take the bus, planners, policy makers, designers, and entrepreneurs play an important role in alleviating loneliness when they make those choices possible.