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.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.