Social isolation and loneliness are becoming common in our large cities. Our cities are sprawling, housing is becoming more unaffordable, people are travelling further and longer in their cars and household size is shrinking.
So what exactly is social isolation? It's a condition which affects people who don’t have strong social connections or interactions with other people. It places them at risk of low self-esteem; higher levels of coronary heart disease, depression, and anxiety; and below normal levels of happiness or subjective wellbeing.
A community snapshot of metropolitan Melbourne, "Melbourne Vital Signs 2014", reveals a number of factors likely to influence social isolation. It showed that one in five households spent more than 30 per cent of their household income on housing. It shows that incidences of family violence have increased by 16 per cent between 2012 and 2013. More than 13 per cent of youth aged 15-19 years are not engaged at all in work or study. Finally, more than 18,500 people are estimated to be homeless in metropolitan Melbourne. These are just a few of the factors related to where and how people live that contribute to social isolation in the suburbs.
Transport networks are another important influence of social isolation. They not only link people to work and study opportunities, but also allow them to socially connect with people, linking people to places where social interactions occur. Getting around is difficult for many people living beyond the transport rich areas of inner city; close to 25 per cent of Melburnians report inconvenience to their daily lives arising from transport, with the oldest and youngest having the most trouble getting around.
Life also becomes more car-dependent in the outer suburbs. A recent local government community survey found that 81 per cent of residents drive to work, leaving little time or energy to connect or volunteer with local community.
Limited transport affects people’s ability to access the employment and education opportunities associated with feelings of achievement and productivity and social interactions. More generally, it’s very hard to socialise, build relationships and new networks needed to get a job, when transport is limited or restricted to car ownership.
So what would the ideal neighbourhood look like if it promoted wellbeing and reduced social isolation?
It would be safe, attractive, socially cohesive, inclusive – and environmentally sustainable. It would include diverse and affordable housing. There would be convenient public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure that was linked to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities.
It would be a neighbourhood that provides for the needs of all people across the lifespan – children, youth, adults and older adults. It would embrace diversity and difference, and have active, informed and engaged residents.
Melbourne has been named the world’s most liveable city for the last 4 years. There remain, however, many challenges we need to work at to reduce social isolation in this city and many others across the country.
People need to access services they need within close distance, a “20 minute city” where neighbourhoods have key services available within a 20 minute distance. The ideal would have higher densities that provide more local employment opportunities and greater services, reducing sprawl and helping to connect people to places, and most importantly, more easily to each other.
Social isolation is not an issue specific to the festive season – but it can be harder for those people who have few people to connect with. So over the coming weeks, as life becomes busier in the lead up to Christmas and the end of the year, it might also be a good time to reflect on our own lives and think about how we can create more connected and inclusive communities.
It might be as simple as saying “hello” to someone on the train, talking to a neighbour or smiling at someone when you’re shopping or walking in your local area. Think about donating a gift or toy for someone who needs it more than you, or inviting someone without family or friends to join your Christmas meal. These might sound like very simple activities – but if everyone put their phone down for a little while maybe we could just bring a little more human kindness to the world and improve social isolation in the suburbs.
Melanie Davern is a research fellow, and Lucy Gunn a post-doctoral student, at the University of Melbourne.