Londoners are among the loneliest people in the world. In a 2016 survey of 20,000 people globally, London was ranked the loneliest city to live in. Nearly nine million of us call this city home, but simply being surrounded by others doesn’t stop many Londoners feeling racked by a sense of isolation.
This feeling is more commonly reported in densely populated cities, proving that to be alone and to be lonely are two entirely different things. Loneliness can affect anyone – from the four in ten young people that have experienced loneliness, to the 50 per cent of disabled people who feel lonely on any given day.
Studies suggest that it’s as bad for our health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can even increase risk of death. This modern public health epidemic impacts our physical health as much as our mental health needs to be taken very seriously.
Loneliness is too big a problem for any person, organisation or even sector to tackle alone. It requires us to come together– as volunteers on the ground, governments, NGOs, universities, businesses, communities and importantly, as lonely people – to find solutions. And this includes those responsible for the physical design of cities, including the Uk capital.
It would be naïve to think that our physical environment isn’t inextricably linked to loneliness. From streets and parks to the buildings we live and work in, the spaces and places where we spend our time physically dictate the opportunities we have for engaging with the people around us.
Designers, architects and developers can mitigate loneliness by re-thinking the way our cities are designed to encourage and facilitate more meaningful social interactions. Alongside the many other initiatives that act as remedies to loneliness, better design could be the preventative solution we’re looking for, not just now but in the future.
As a major developer of land and property in London, Lendlease, the company I work for, is working in partnership with the organisation Collectively to examine this concept in more depth. Together, we launched The Loneliness Lab with the aim of finding out what it takes to create places that give people the connections they need to lead happy, healthy lives.
To launch the Lab, we recently hosted a week-long innovation “sprint” in London with almost 50 organisations and 120 people with a range of experiences – from urban planners to people experiencing loneliness in their everyday lives.
Throughout the week, the sprinters met residents and experts, and studied local communities to build and test a range of concepts that could tackle loneliness in London. The process uncovered some fascinating insights about the way we live and work, and how the built environment influences our feelings of loneliness.
At home, for example, many Londoners live in flats without windows facing into communal areas and providing few opportunities for interaction. And at work,contrary to their intention, open plan offices often make people feel isolated. It can be easy to go for days without seeing the same colleague, and online interactions are often favoured over phone calls or face-to-face time.
More than ten projects developed during the sprint are now being piloted across London – with many created in Southwark where the Lab was based – and there is potential to roll out successful solutions to other cities around the world. The Lab is an open source project, which means other people could also be using the ideas identified to help tackle loneliness in their own communities.
Launching the Loneliness Lab was the first step in a long-term commitment from Lendlease, to find ways to tackle loneliness through the built environment. Alongside our commitment to the Lab, we’re continuing to explore ways to design places that better connect people with one another.
As a global developer that aspires to help create the best places for communities to thrive, we have a responsibility to better understand peoples’ needs and behaviours. We are working hard to ensure that the environments we build address the needs of the people who will live and work in them, and that pressing social issues – like loneliness – are addressed in how homes, workplaces and public spaces are designed to support better connected communities.
Paul King is Lendlease Europe’s managing director, sustainability and external affairs.