Image © Ernest Akayeu

Loneliness is a problem that we all deal with from time to time. As humans, we have an innate need that makes us crave connections to other people. Mounting research indicates the importance and direct correlation of social connections between humans and predicted health outcomes. Psychologist Julianna Holt-Lunstad’s meta-analysis revealed that the mortality risk of loneliness was comparable to the mortality risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and exceeded the mortality risk of obesity and physical inactivity (Holt-Lunstad, 2010). As surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy discovered an underlying theme as he engaged with countless citizens across the United States – they were lonely. In his recent book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, he explains that loneliness is an invisible epidemic not only associated with a reduction of lifespan, but also a higher risk of mortality than heart disease and dementia (Murthy, 2020). However, says loneliness can also manifest itself as addiction, anger, violence, depression and anxiety.  

The COVID-19 crisis has made people acutely aware of the value of human connection. Although the terms loneliness and social isolation are sometimes used synonymously, they describe different concepts. “Social isolation is the objective physical separation from other people (living), while loneliness is the subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated” (Cacioppo, 2014). This means that one can be physically isolated and not feel lonely, or in contrast, one could be among people and still feel lonely. 

The issues of loneliness are complex. And, while there is substantial evidence supporting its detrimental effects on our physical health, there is a lack of effective evidence-based interventions. Without claiming to solve the problem, architectural design and planning can play an integral part in responding to loneliness. The relationship between architecture and health is vital because, if done correctly, architecture can provide a foundation that fosters connectivity that is flexible and open as it responds to new ideas and ever-changing needs of the community it serves. Well-designed environments and cities can offer multiple opportunities for casual and informal encounters throughout the day.

Designing an infrastructure that is easily accessible to open plazas, beautiful gardens, cafes, play structures, restaurants, and markets, allows for multiple scenarios and opportunities to make unexpected personal connections as well as lifelong friendships.

Creating alternative housing whose inhabitants are intergenerational and intentional about building a connected life could also facilitate alleviating feelings of loneliness. The housing should be inclusive of diverse cultures, at-risk populations, digital nomads and changing lifestyles. Without compromising privacy and sense of identity, residents have several opportunities to establish meaningful relationships. Additionally, designing private living units that open up to common areas, interspersed with spaces for solitude, reading or intimate encounters addresses individual and group needs. Also, shared spaces that are adaptable allow for the community to participate in group activities such as meditation/mindfulness or yoga. Community gardens or greenhouses could offer incentives to encourage participation, engage individuals and provide healthy alternatives for communal dinners to be shared in common kitchens.

Simply putting people together doesn’t necessarily mitigate the pain associated with loneliness. A concerted effort that includes partnering with researchers, gathering data, evaluating what works, and obtaining funding is essential to making progress on this front. Dr. Vivek Murthy suggests that doing service not only helps the person being served, but also helps them overcome loneliness. In these micro-communities, for example, seniors could tutor youth, digital nomads could help seniors utilize technology to help them connect with family and friends, and residents that are healthy could provide support to those with illnesses. The possibilities are endless and exploring all ideas that extend beyond the limits of conventional thought could lead to powerful antidotes to loneliness.

Berkeley, May 28, 2020


  • Sara Harpole says:

    Thank you for advocating for people-centric development. I wonder what might happen if we gave young people an economic incentive to live and interact with elderly populations. Would reduced rent make it socially acceptable to explain a new, retired friend? The US population is an actively aging one and resources for our oldest residents need to include mental stimuli. Imagine on a vacation to Italy (where the population is significantly elderly), you stay in a hotel that is an incognito retirement home. Tourists could pay to meet a lonely nonna who can tell them first-person histories of their hometown while learning to make a stovetop cappuccino. That has the potential to create short term social interaction across generations, while also financially supporting people on fixed incomes.

  • Andrea Batarse says:

    Incredibly relevant! How could we merge technology and public spaces to foster interaction and combat loneliness, particularly in dense, metropolitan cities? Is there an opportunity for us to redesign the physical cityscape by infusing a virtual world where everyone can play?

Leave a Reply