Loneliness is Life Threatening: We Can Design Cities to Foster Community

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.)

We urban planners need to stop creating a built environment that is making people sick and causing premature deaths. I am not talking here about the dangers of traffic or pollution, lack of healthy food, or damage to the eco-system. I am talking about how some of the most common forms of urban development – suburban sprawl and vertical high-rise sprawl - cause loneliness, which can lead to depression, chronic inflammation, and life-threatening diseases, including increased risk of cancer. “Loneliness”, says Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, “really is one of the most threatening experiences we can have.”

NPR recently reported on a study by Cole published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Cole noticed that when people felt lonely, they had significantly higher levels of norepinephrine in their blood. Norepinephrine is the chemical that protects us in life-threatening situations, and stimulates the production of white blood cells needed to heal wounds. The problem is, this process also shuts down immune defenses making us more vulnerable to infections.

These chemical reactions in the body may have evolved in prehistoric times when we lived in tribes. A lone individual was vulnerable to attack from animals or hostile tribes. But the human body’s responses are still the same today.

Cole’s study from the field of genomics explains the chemical changes in the body that account for a phenomenon long observed by researchers in public health and social sciences: persons with a strong social network involving daily face-to face interaction with a wide variety of people don’t get sick so often, if they get sick, it isn’t so serious, and they live to a greater old age. Social scientists have concluded that those with strong social networks have built up a strong “social immune system” that protects their mental and physical health.

Social isolation is associated with poor physical and mental health and early death. At its worst extreme, for example, prisoners who are held in social isolation, it is justly deemed torture and can lead to madness, self-immolation and suicide. In its less dramatic and more common situations, such as elders with limited mobility who live alone in a high-rise apartment, or children and youth in sprawling suburbs who are told to go straight home after school, not to play on the street, and to wait home alone for their commuting parents, loneliness can have more subtle, but nonetheless devastating effects on health.

And chronic loneliness may amplify chemicals in the brain associated with fear and anxiety, leading to more social avoidance – a vicious cycle.

So what should urban planners be doing to protect health? Every effort should be made to create a built environment that facilitates the development of social life and community in a safe and hospitable public realm. Social interactions should be facilitated by wide sidewalks, traffic-free or traffic-tamed streets and public squares. The public realm should be enclosed by human-scale buildings providing eyes on the street, and ensuring sunlight at street level. Children and elders should live within eyesight and earshot of people on the street. Streets should be well-populated by local shoppers and pedestrians on their way to school or work. This requires a compact urban fabric for the city center and neighborhood that brings everything within a walking radius, and neighborhoods that are interconnected with public transit so that part of every trip is made on foot in the public realm.

As a recent study on The Effects of the Urban Built Environment on Mental Health by Giulia Melis et al shows, there is less evidence of depression, particularly among women and elders, for those living in the dense heart of Turin, a mixed-use, urban fabric of five and six stories with a vibrant social life in the streets, squares and inner courtyards, compared to less compact peripheral areas of the city. 

This is the way the traditional city was constructed for millennia. Our current aberration of suburban sprawl and vertical sprawl – urban forms invented for the purpose of increasing economic wealth – have produced untold mental and physical ill health by generating loneliness. It is time we designed cities to increase social life, community, and well-being!