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.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.