Why we need neighborhood squares. Part 4: Preventing Loneliness

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

Humans are social beings. Contact with family, friends and social circles is not just pleasurable, it is essential. An individual’s very sense of self is shaped and maintained through social life. One of the most serious punishments we can inflict is solitary confinement, which can result in serious existential crisis, and deterioration of mental and physical health. And yet, inadvertently, we are still building too many urban and suburban environments that induce isolation and loneliness.

In the 60s, suburban housewives found loneliness led to depression, and to extensive use of tranquilizers and alcohol. In recent decades, it is suburban children and elders who suffer social isolation: suburban streets lacking sidewalks are too dangerous, and absence of community exacerbates fear of strangers.

After raising children in the suburbs, elders are now moving to the city. Single elders are particularly vulnerable to loneliness if children have moved away and a spouse has died. Lacking the social ambience of a workplace, it becomes hard to maintain the daily diet of social interaction necessary to prevent loneliness, low self-esteem, social anxiety and depression.

A neighborhood square makes a difference in an older person’s life. You can see this if you watch an elderly woman entering the square, shoulders bowed, only too aware of her arthritic pains and increasing unsteadiness. A friend calls a greeting and she raises her head to respond. Further on, a couple crosses her path, and stops to tell her the latest news of the family. A child runs up, and walks with her to the bakery. Shopping takes longer than necessary because of the conversations, and she emerges talking animatedly with a friend. By now she is exchanging gossip and laughing. She has forgotten her troubles, and walks briskly home, her mind full of the conversations of the last half hour.

In our sprawling suburbs, children have fewer friends than ever before. With nowhere for them to meet, forbidden to play on the street, and under strict instructions to stay in the house, teens spend more time alone – 3 ½ hours per day – than with family or friends. Children who spend extensive time alone report having lower self esteem, being less happy, enjoying what they are doing less, and feeling less active when they are alone. They often find difficulty in social situations because they are shy – a condition increasingly termed “Social Anxiety Syndrome” and treated pharmaceutically as if it were a medical problem.

Greenspan warned, “as children become more alienated from the lives of others… we can expect to see increasing levels of violence and extremism and less collaboration and empathy.” He emphasizes that children need “to grow up amid a network of close interactions with adults.” Until recently, he observed, “even in cities, families spent their days mostly within the compass of neighborhoods one could easily traverse on foot… Ordinary life thus naturally and routinely provided the conditions that the complex human nervous system needs to fulfill its potential.”

High-rise housing has been found to increase isolation among those who must spend much time at home. It is associated with greater rates of juvenile delinquency, greater feelings of alienation, and more depression among young mothers. Gifford summarizes the research thus: “the literature suggests that high-rises are less satisfactory than other housing forms for most people, that they are not optimal for children, that social relations are more impersonal and helping behavior is less than in other housing forms, that crime and fear of crime are greater, and that they may independently account for some suicides.”

Engaging on the square with a diversity of others allows each individual to emerge from a lonely, inward-looking existence, to experience herself reflected in the interaction with others as a full, complex human being. Both cities and suburbs need neighborhood squares to counteract loneliness, especially among elders and young people.

Turn to Part 5: Sociability and health