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Can a City Fight Loneliness?


An architecture and urban planning project combats the isolation of big cities.

Even surrounded by multitudes of people, it’s easy to feel alone in the city. And here, there are two kinds of solitude; the intimate and the collective. Although the solitary can be one of life’s most enjoyable states, it’s also proven that the effect of spending a lot of time in isolation can be harmful to emotional and physical health. How does an environment, specifically an urban environment, make us feel alienated?

A city’s organization, its infrastructure, and its public spaces are all capable of affecting social contact. One can feel deeply alone even while simply walking amidst a crowd crossing the street, or while accompanied in a neighborhood park, while talking with a neighbor or a walking companion – so paradoxical is the relationship between a city and loneliness.

Although places don’t necessarily encourage contact, they can restrict it through simple spatial arrangements. Similarly, cities’ landscapes, in and outside the city proper, will tangibly affect the minds of inhabitants. A relevant question comes up, then: might a city —in its urban design, its architecture, its public spaces, and its configuration— also combat the loneliness of its inhabitants?

Tanzil Shafique, an urban design researcher at the University of Melbourne, recently organized Open Studio. It’s an ideas workshop for urbanism students who’ve worked on projects aimed at combating loneliness in metropolises around the world.

One of these students, Diana Ong, came up with the idea to install sensory activators in train stations. Along with some other elements, the installation allows people get closer to each other while waiting. Zi Ye worked on an app revolving around pets and which connects the dog owners of a specified area within a social network. Another student, Denise Chan, studied the mostly solitary and abandoned spaces functioning as passages and corridors between buildings. She raised the possibility of transforming them into narrow gardens, spaces for the sale and exchange of books, merchandise, or food, and so that they function more as spaces for meeting and contact during working hours.

Another of Shafique’s students, Fanhui Ding, came up with an idea for re-creating university dining halls such that students also operate small hydroponic greenhouses. In theory, these in turn supply raw ingredients to the kitchens, and students earn credit for their food purchases. Food discounts are also extended as an incentive to share tables such that people don’t end up eating alone. The proposal is especially aimed at accommodating foreign students, already more susceptible to feeling alone, by using hydroponics and the kitchen as points of contact.

Focused on the elderly, another student, Beverly Wang, designed a kindergarten which also functions as a home for seniors, with spaces shared for the telling of stories. The plan allows little ones to learn from people who’ve lived much longer and allows the elderly to feel useful and appreciated. For his part, another student, Malak Mossaoui focused on a very specific kind of loneliness: that felt by someone who’s lost a loved one. He designed an installation in which flowers are grown for cemeteries and such that those who visit the cemetery, instead of buying flowers in a shop, harvest their flowers on site and in the company of others in similar situations. Still other projects include the redesign of supermarkets and shared spaces within housing complexes and buildings.

Shafique’s workshop is still but the outline of a future that sounds promising. It’s an urbanism which, in addition to confronting practical and spatial issues, takes into account the people who inhabit the world’s cities and their emotional needs, while offering a future that’s a lot less lonely.

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