How Can Space Design Help combat Social Isolation and Loneliness?

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Each one of us has felt lonely at some point in time in our lives. This is a universal feeling. Recent studies have shown that one fifth of the adults in United States and UK and almost one tenth in Japan; feel lonely or socially isolated. Former U. S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy coined the term “loneliness epidemic”, citing large scale research showing loneliness and are far more harmful for our health than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

 

Researchers at Brigham Young University, showed that long and short-term health outcomes such as incidence of disease, cognitive decline and premature death are strongly associated with loneliness and social isolation. Furthermore, loneliness is linked to burnout at work and school, leading to disengagement and poorer performance.

 

As per research reports, loneliness has two aspects: 1) self-reported loneliness, meaning how lonely one feels and 2) social isolation, which can be measured by the number of meaningful connections one has and how much time one spends with others.

 

So the big question is how to conquer loneliness? This cannot be done by surrounding yourself with people in a crowded place. The idea is not to meet maximum number of people, but to develop long term relations that you nurture over a period of time.

 

Understanding how can help us feel more connected

Let us look around and observe our surroundings (such as city parks, piazzas in Italian villages) to understand how exactly can environmental designs can make us feel more connected and thus less lonely. These spaces conform to the basic principles of connectivity.

 

They are nothing but gathering hubs – such as fountains and public squares that become lively with bustling markets, local celebrations etc. They provide spaces that fit social scale – allowing individual people to enjoy the environment at their own comfort, or a couple to sit closely together on a bench, and for a family to spread out and have a good time together.

 

These spaces also provide different choices. One can move around or dance and sing in the centre of the park, or one may choose to sit in a corner, and simply observe the environment. It is not just the people or the space that make the gathering place come alive, but it is the activities within that space that attract people towards it. Activities attract people for large, noteworthy events and bring them back for more leisurely visits.


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These same principles hold true throughout different types and scales of spaces, from parks to school gymnasiums, coworking spaces to performing arts centers. In a work environment, this may mean providing space for breakouts away from a main open work space – something we refer to as ‘Me’, ‘We’ and ‘Us’ spaces.

 

Long stays in hospitals can result in a feeling of isolation among the patients. The Fort Worth Adolescent and Young Adult unit at Baylor Scott & White created a lounge on the inpatient units to address this very issue. This space has been designed to offer different zones for different activities – from playing Rock Band with fellow patients or friends to sitting quietly and reading inva corner to enjoying a cup of coffee with your loved ones. So this arrangement offers lot of opportunities for social engagement.

 

This issue has also been observed among young adults studying in colleges. The rise of stress, anxiety and isolation among the young adults has a direct impact on student success and health. The University of California San Diego (UCSD) made a revolutionary step toward creating a new type of learning and living environment that addresses these concerns. Special dorms were created with space at each floor for student engagement. The students have to pass through these spaces while going to their own rooms, thus increasing probability of more social interactions. UCSD expanded this theme into the main neighborhood spaces through the creation of a main street with cafes, dining spaces and services (e.g., post office, student services, grocery) along the way. These spaces create a plethora of reasons to go to the main street, and an array of choices of where to sit, engage, recharge or play a game.

 

Many of the best connector spaces are those spaces without ownership – they are the in-between spaces. This is true of Promenade Park, adjacent to ProMedica’s new headquarters in Toledo, Ohio. ProMedica recognized the relationship between public space, community engagement and health when they took a historic waterfront space that was once beloved for their “Party in the Park” celebrations. The newly-redesigned park connects ProMedica to its city with an eye to improving community health. By programming public events including farmers markets, public art festivals and a summer concert series, the revitalized park and campus draw people together and bring renewed vitality to downtown Toledo. ProMedica partners with entities including the Arts Commission, Toledo Symphony Orchestra and more to promote a spirit of inclusion at the heart of the city.

 

Globally we feel more divided than ever, and there is an increased focus on how we can foster connection and understanding through shared experiences in real life. We are beginning to recognize the role of our built environments in shaping our social experiences and opportunities for connection. In turn, these activated spaces can help overcome loneliness by developing communities that are livelier and more connected.

 

(This article has been authored by Erin Peavey – a practicing architect and design researcher at HKS)

 


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