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.

 
 
 
 

The media scumbag’s route of choice: A personal history of London’s C2 bus

A C2 bus at Parliament Hill. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

London’s C2 bus route, which runs from Parliament Hill, by Hampstead Heath, down to Conduit Street, just off Regent Street, is one of the bus routes recently earmarked for the chop. It has oft been noted that, of all the routes recently pencilled in for cancellation after a consultation late last year, it was the one most likely to survive, for the simple reason that it links liberal suburban north London with BBC Broadcasting House and Soho; it’s thus the route most likely to be used by people who can convince someone to let them report on its imminent demise.

So it would come as no surprise that former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger took to the Camden New Journal when the consultation began, arguing that it would be a disservice to the local community to discontinue a route where you can always get a seat – seemingly missing the point that the fact you can always get a seat is not a great sign of the route’s usefulness.

It wasn’t always that way. When I left university in 2000, and moved from accommodation near college to up to a rented shared house in N6, the C2 was my bus. I commuted to Soho for sixteen years: for more than a decade from flats around the Swain’s Lane roundabout, and for five years from Kentish Town. While my place of work bounced around from Golden Square to Lexington Street to Great Marlborough, it was always the most convenient way to get to, and from, work; especially given the difference between bus and tube prices.

So when it comes to the C2 I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and bought the bus pass. And by bus pass, I mean those little paper ones that still existed at the beginning of this century. Not just before contactless, but before Oyster cards.

More importantly, it was before London buses operated a single zone. There was an outer zone, and an inner zone, with different prices. To travel from one zone to another cost £1.30, meaning an all cash commute was £2.60, whereas a paper bus pass was £2.00. That made it worth your while to divert to an early opening newsagents on your way to the bus stop (GK, in my case), even if you only got two buses a day.

It’s a measure of how greatly London’s buses have improved over the last twenty years, since first brought under control of the mayoralty, that pretty much everything about this anecdotage, including the prices, seems faintly mad. But there’s more: back when I started getting that bus down to Stop N, literally at the very end of the route, the C2 used single decker buses with a single door. It’s an appalling design for use in a crowded city, which meant most of any journey was, for most passengers, spent fighting your way up and down the middle of the bus to find a seat, and then back again to get off; or – and this was more likely – fighting your way up the bus to get into standing space the driver insisted was there, before fighting your way, etc.

Such buses – and in my former life in the English Midlands I went to school on one of these buses every day – are perfectly functional where bus stops are infrequent and buses rarely standing room only. But running through Camden Town at rush hour, they’re wholly unfit for purpose.

A Citypacer. Image: RXUYDC/Wikimedia Commons.

It could have been worse. I didn’t know this at the time, but a few years before the C2 route had been run using Optare City Pacers. Those are, let us be frank, not really buses at all, but minibuses. That’s something the reveals the C2’s origins, as a hopper route to the west end largely intended for the daytime use of Gospel Oak’s pensioners in the years immediately before bus privatisation. (The C11 has a similar origin, taking the same constituency from Archway to England’s Lane.)

Once responsibility for London Buses was moved to the newly established mayoralty, things improved dramatically. Under Ken Livingstone it went double decker in 2005, and 24 hour in 2007. Under Boris Johnson it was extended from its once, and future, terminus of Conduit Street to Victoria Station, swallowing up the cancelled sections of the 8 bus; this extension was quietly disposed of a few years later, once it was clear no one would notice. (I did.)


In those years I must have taken a C2 the best part of ten thousand times; but for all the years when I wouldn’t have been able to live without the C2, times have reduced its utility, and not just for me. I’m now a 214 sort of guy: these days the top chunk of the C2 route is duplicated exactly by that other bus, which starts up in Highgate Village and, once it gets to Swain’s Lane, follows the same path until the fork of Kentish Town Road and Royal College Street, opposite the long defunct South Kentish Town tube station.

From a few hundred metres below that point, at Camden Gardens, stop C, the 88 starts. That duplicates the rest of the C2’s route, with the exception of the run down Albany Street and onto Great Portland, for much of which the C2 is the only bus.

So the C2, old friend that it is, is pretty redundant in the age of the hopper fare, which allows you to change buses without paying a second fare. That’s even more true now the C2’s otherwise un-serviced stops are being giving over to a re-routed 88, which will pick up the C2’s most northern leg, by not finishing at Camden Gardens anymore and instead going all the way to Parliament Hill Fields. Which will be nice for it.

All this, however, ignores the best reason for getting rid of the C2 (or rather for merging it with the 88, which is what’s actually happening): that first character. The letter. Who wants a bus route with a letter in front of it when even half the night buses don’t have the N anymore? It’s relic of the route’s aforementioned origins as a ‘Camdenhopper’.

That C is twenty five years past its own utility. It’s just untidy. City Metric hates that sort of thing. Get rid.