Strangers in the city

Words by Yasmin Afshar and Michi McCloskey

Illustration Yasmin Afshar and Michi McCloskey

Urban loneliness is a huge problem, but it doesn’t necessarily need large-scale design solutions, write Yasmin Afshar and Michi McCloskey

In developed nations, social isolation is increasingly considered a public health epidemic. But when we are surrounded by more people, amenities and opportunities than ever before, most of us struggle to admit — let alone comprehend — these feelings. Mega-trends such as urbanization, an ageing population, and greater connectivity (both physical and digital) have culminated in communities where people may live in close proximity to many others, but in which lifestyles are increasingly solitary. Humans crave interaction and belonging — yet the built environments we have created are clearly falling far short of fulfilling these needs.

From an urbanist’s point of view, we wondered how we could better design cities to promote social connections and engender communities where everyone feels they belong. So we turned to the abundant literature on why cities make us lonely. Whether the focus is the neuroscience of architecture or how urban design meets Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we found the common theme to be that individuals are happiest when they can establish casual relationships with people they meet regularly within their day-to-day activities. But there’s a shortage of solutions that can be readily implemented. Most tend towards the idealistic or long term, some are only viable on a large scale, some call for nothing less than re-engineering the entire system. Making a community more accessible by transit, for example, would certainly offer many new opportunities for the residents. But it could take 20 years to reap the benefits. How does that help people who are experiencing social isolation right now?

Our research left us feeling powerless. But then it occurred to us that there were a lot of examples of hands-on initiatives in our own community — the Greater Toronto Area — that were already making an impact. Could we learn from those? The common theme across all the instances we identified is the provision of places where friends and strangers alike can be together.

Older adults are particularly vulnerable when it comes to urban loneliness, and spaces for them to interact meaningfully appeared limited. However, the Flower City Seniors Centre does a great job at filling this gap in the suburb of Brampton. This large recreational complex always seems to be busy. It draws from a large area, with a wide programme of events for Brampton’s multicultural community. There are pool tables, bocce ball, dance classes, areas where seniors sell their knitting. It feels like there’s a bar even though there’s not. And the best part is that although it targets a specific population, it brings together crowds across the ages.

Millennials are a less obviously vulnerable group — we’re supposed to have loads of things going on. But what if that’s not enough? What kind of spaces could foster that community? 401 Richmond feels like the equivalent of a community centre for this age group, but it’s a more exciting place to go. It’s a beautiful heritage building in downtown Toronto, at the intersection of the city’s fashion, business and entertainment districts. It’s a hub of activity for different entrepreneurs and artists, with a coffee shop, bookstore, gallery space and diverse events daily. There’s also a huge bulletin board which the community uses to post notices about events and opportunities. For those seeking to feel part of a large city, the beauty of this space lies in its multifunctionality and inclusivity.

As community builders, our processes need to consider the creation of inclusive spaces from design to implementation. Once you develop a community, people take charge and keep it going. But they have to be able to participate in the first place. Design too often takes a one-size-fits-all approach, rather than empowering individuals with diverse needs to participate in ways that work for them. A great example of a context-specific retrofit initiative is the Community Ramp Project, set up by Toronto’s StopGap Foundation to make the city’s storefronts accessible. Stores send in a photo of their entryway and the measurements, and the charity supplies a custom-made ramp in a bright colour of their choice. Since 2011, it has supplied more than 1,000 highly visible ramps across Canada and the US. This is a very simple solution that can make a world of difference at an individual level. But it also serves to raise awareness of how the built environment can exclude people, and hopefully inspire others to consider how they could make communities more welcoming.

Another important step is to provide opportunities for purposeful community engagement during the planning and design stages. This is an explicit goal of the 60-acre East Harbour redevelopment in Toronto, which has chosen to follow the EcoDistricts protocol. This includes many opportunities for local people to help shape their neighbourhood. For example, at a pop-up open house, visitors engaged in meaningful discussion about indicators developed through workshops with technical agencies and voted on their preferred objectives for the future community.

The loneliness epidemic may seem nebulous and intractable, but as with many other urban challenges, there are solutions to be found right in front of us. And often, the solutions may not come from urban designers at all, but from the communities we serve.

Yasmin Afshar is a planner/urban designer and Michi McCloskey is a project planner at WSP in Toronto

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