Loneliness and the Built Environment: Towards Compassionate Places

Loneliness and the Built Environment (opens new window) is a short film I made as a creative collaboration with filmmaker Lawrence Barraclough. It’s one of the core topics I’ve been working on over the last decade, whilst developing new approaches for design and placemaking that respond to our human needs, human nature and people’s experience of places.

Places affect our lives profoundly. But often the design of the built environment overlooks how it impacts people. This includes whether we have the opportunity, or not, to interact with one another. Given that loneliness is shown to have a significant impact of people’s mental and physical health, why is this not a wider concern when making places?

How can we move towards the step change and cultural shift needed?

The film was about raising awareness; that the fabric of our surroundings have an important role to play - which is not widely recognised, let alone optimised. And that there is an urgent need to move towards new approaches that provide different types of solutions for the challenges of today.  Often loneliness is seen as a personal issue, when it is in fact also systemic. The way places are shaped can either help or hinder social connection. This gets built in.

There are many organisations pioneering work in this area, yet enabling social interaction, a sense of connectedness, belonging and community is still not the standard way that our cities, neighbourhoods, homes and public spaces are being shaped. As well as creating new solutions in design and placemaking, I am interested in how we can create a collective step change and cultural shift. The film allowed us to capture and express the emotional dimension of places – the unseen but felt. And to connect with people on this topic in a different way.

Addressing the emotional and social dimensions of places

I see the increase in loneliness as symptomatic of the many pressing issues that current ways of city-making are neglecting to respond to: The atomisation of society. The fraying of community fabric. The growing crises of mental health. Currently there is a lack of acknowledgement of our own humanity -  and the complexity of this - in the way we create our environments. Our human-made habitats.

The outcomes for people and communities must be the starting point and end point for measuring success when we are making and shaping places. I have been working to put a new model for more healthy, humane, compassionate urban futures into practice (opens new window). This shifts the way places are designed and shaped to be based on the benefits to people’s health, wellbeing and quality of life. Social interaction, community and belonging are a core part of this.

The questions now is how can we move forwards as an industry to scale up the work that many are doing in this area? Can compassion be built into the foundations of places as the new standard?

This blog was published to coincide with Loneliness Awareness Week 2024. 

For further information and resources on Combating loneliness and reducing social isolation, visit: https://www.housinglin.org.uk/Topics/browse/loneliness-and-isolation/

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