Why is living in a big city so isolating?

Aaaaahhh look at all the lonely people. Image: Getty.

Living in a city means rubbing shoulders with millions of people every day – on public transport, in apartment buildings and on the streets. That might at first glance seem like an antidote to loneliness. Yet cities can be isolating, solitary places where many of us live entirely anonymously – never knowing who are neighbours are or who lives in the flat downstairs.

Case in point: 55 per cent of Londoners said they felt lonely sometimes, according to a TimeOut City Index Survey last year. In Tokyo, loneliness is such a problem that people are “renting” friends to keep them company. And we know loneliness has a dire impact on our health, with a recent study finding loneliness is bad for our hearts and linked to premature death.

So why are big cities so lonely? Here are four possible reasons.

A lack of a sense of community

“It's true that we are commonly surrounded by people in cities, so it does seem a bit mysterious that there is an epidemic of loneliness,” says Colin Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at Canada’s University of Waterloo, who studies the impact of places on the brain and body.

“But it's not enough to just be physically near other people to break down loneliness: we also have to reach out to make contact with them. And this is where the problems arise.  For many of us – most of us, I think – it can be difficult to break down our natural reserve to reach out to strangers.”

It is obviously not possible for everyone in a city to up sticks and move to the countryside, but there is an argument for the “sense of community” that comes with a smaller town or village. James, who is 28 and from the Midlands, says he was “bloody lonely” during his first six months of living in London.

“The food, the clubs, the sights: London, the UK’s only true mega-city, is a potential playground.” But it often stays potential, he says, “because without friends or family, the capital is cold and uninviting. People’s heads are down, they’re busy and they’re in a rush.” Worse: social niceties – please, hi, bye – “seem to have been thrown out of the window somewhere just outside of the M25”.

(That being said, some argue that not saying hello to everyone you pass in a big city like London is a result of “negative politeness culture”, rather than rudeness. We swerve small talk to avoid encroaching on others’ personal space – and the sheer number of people make it impossible to acknowledge everyone you pass by.)

City design

The way cities are designed can also contribute to levels of loneliness, including the ever-growing trend of replacing public spaces with more blocks of unaffordable flats.

“The availability of public space, truly public space in which we feel joint ownership along with other citizens, is decreasing in cities,” Ellard says. “The value of such spaces is that, when they are working well, they afford us with opportunities to mingle with others, hopefully doing something fun, and to recognise our similarities with others rather than our differences.”

Humans are actually adapted to living in small groups with kin, Ellard says. “The trick is to help people to feel a little bit more connected to strangers, and that can be done by generating positive moods in public places.”

The design of residential buildings can also contribute to urban isolation, Ellard explains. “As cities increase in density, many more of us are living in high-rises. Depending on how they are designed, such buildings can be really alienating,” he says. “We are only likely to mingle with our neighbours during brief sojourns on elevators, and we are not overly likely to bump into the same neighbours every day.”

Small changes, such as shared common areas, may hold the answer – giving us more chance of connecting with others.


High living costs

Then, though, there are living costs to contend with. It goes without saying that cities can be hugely expensive, which can impact our social lives. The cocktail of rising rents and stagnating wages makes it much harder to fund socialising with friends in the pub or going out for dinner.

Long working hours and lengthy commutes also make us feel lonelier, too. And it is hard to properly put down roots and build a sense of community when living in the private rental sector means you have to move every year or so.

Being in virtual contact

The jury is still out on whether technology unites us or traps us behind our screens – but it’s safe to say that after a long, arduous commute home across a city, many of us are guilty of sending a WhatsApp instead of meeting up for a pint.

Being in constant virtual contact with friends or family may feel sociable, but research suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. A US study published last year found those who spend over two hours a day on social media are more likely to feel socially isolated.

“Though I think the evidence is mixed on this, it's hard not to think that technology has played a role in our current epidemic as well,” Ellard says. “Lots of tasks, for example shopping, which used to require us to go out into the world and rub shoulders with others, can now be done from home online. It's hard to deny the convenience of these options, but at the same time I worry a bit about what's being lost in human contact.”

Not all cities struggle with a loneliness epidemic. According to the TimeOut City Index Survey, only 10 per cent of people in Lisbon feel lonely. United Nations data shows Danes living in Copenhagen are happy and there are a number of reasons why, including that the city is designed for cycling: exercise is known to benefit mental and physical health.

The answer to the urban loneliness epidemic may lie in better public spaces, lower rents and a better work-life balance, but there is no quick fix to this problem. Rather, it may be better to focus on preventative strategies – renting friends may not seem so ridiculous after all – and the great things cities have going for them. The hustle and bustle of pubs, restaurants, museums, theatres and the melting pot of people is why so many of us moved to urban areas in the first place, after all.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.