The lonely city

No man is an island — until there’s a smartphone in his hand and a delivery app open. The digital divide has fostered a dramatic physical disconnect, and its effects have redefined the way we interact within community. Experts have memorably suggested that prolonged isolation is worse for your health than smoking a pack a day. Can we use innovative design to influence more pro-social behaviour in our cities?

Maybe it all started with a delivery app, or maybe it was a Netflix subscription. With a few taps and a credit card, the need to trek outside in nasty weather was suddenly, thoroughly obsolete.

After a few weeks of winter tires, long, slushy commutes and grey afternoons, the screens gain ground — incrementally, and nearly unnoticed — until one day, they’ve somehow become our primary portal to the outside world.

In burgeoning urban centres with booming job growth and increasingly dense populations, a sense of social isolation has become endemic. Almost one quarter of Canadians self-report that they struggle with “extreme” social isolation and loneliness — and 45 per cent say they haven’t interacted with a neighbour in at least a month. There are myriad factors at play here, and it would be reductive to cite just one. But identifying a few keystone issues is essential to designing solutions that may nudge behaviour in a more pro-social direction. As with our screens and apps and Netflix binges, the path of least resistance is prime real estate for habit construction. So which environmental, structural and social factors might we re-engineer to make incremental shifts toward more connected cities?


Going mental

Any meaningful discussion of social isolation must also pay a call to its closest cousin: our increasing rates of mental health diagnoses.

It’s a chicken-egg conundrum of diminishing returns: mental health issues feed self-isolating feelings and behaviours, which often worsen the initial symptoms. Meanwhile, those who are socially isolated are more vulnerable to developing mental health challenges in the first place.

Twenty per cent of Canadians experience mental illness in any given year. In our lifetime, we have a 70 per cent chance of experiencing mental illness. Looking to the future, about 8.9 million people in Canada are expected to be living with mental health problems by 2041. Even beyond those directly impacted, mental illness affects everyone. A study in 2010 estimated that mental health costs the Canadian economy $50 billion per year, and is predicted to exceed $2.5 trillion over the next 30 years.

However, despite their daunting scope and prevalence, it’s important to consider that mental health issues often have both social and biological components, which can be impacted (and improved) by the built environment. Protective measures might include:


Not just a number

Another consideration lies in designing for cohorts that are particularly vulnerable to social isolation and restricted mobility. Perhaps the most populous of these groups is older Canadians.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that the share of the world’s population aged 60 or over will double from 11 per cent in 2006 to 22 per cent by 2050. In Canada, the 2016 census found that for the first time in the country’s history, there are more seniors aged 65 and older than there are children aged 14 and younger. Looking towards the future, projections suggest that by 2056, seniors will comprise up to 30 per cent of the Canadian population.  

Thorough proactive planning can create a built environment that fosters greater resiliency among aging populations. For example, we can consider development planning for a variety of housing types (including retirement residences); age-friendly urban design and public works that improve accessibility and safety in public spaces; improving transit systems with an eye to accessing health services and shopping for residents who can no longer drive; and creating more outdoor and recreational spaces that are age-friendly.


Mind the (transit) gap

No matter how many community resources and supports we put in place, their efficacy will be limited unless there is a convenient, reliable way to access them. When it comes to creating greater connectivity, the systems used to move around cities and towns, to access jobs, schools, recreational activities and social networks, play an essential role.

Transit is linked to both mental and physical health in numerous ways — and by making some strategic design tweaks, we can begin to improve both. 

A study based in Turin, Italy establishes a direct link between transit and mental health, finding that people living in “deprived” neighbourhoods (defined in terms of quality of transportation, among other features) were more likely to suffer from depression.

On the other hand, many indirect mental health benefits of transit exist, which can be broadly categorized as those associated with using transit, and the extra physical activity involved in navigating transit. The tendency for transit users to engage in physical activity on their commutes has a positive impact on mental well-being due to the extra endorphins produced as a result of exercise.

Transit also creates an environment where face-to-face social interactions are more likely, which research has shown to be beneficial for mental health.

Another obvious benefit is economic, as good transit systems improve and expand access to jobs and educational opportunities. Additionally, increased access to a wider social network and overall social capital gains is a further benefit of transit investment, with associated mental health benefits. Studies have shown that strong social capital is correlated to lower rates of depression, and improvements to the transit system can be expected to enhance social connectivity and social capital by making it easier for people to physically access their social networks.


Behavioural “nudging”

Designing the built environment to maximize the convenience healthy, positive options and influence social choice is sometimes referred to as behavioural nudging. This can be accomplished in subtle, less-direct ways, like designing well-connected transit systems that connect people to good jobs. But behavioural nudging can also be carried out in more direct, intentional ways to influence very specific actions, instead of general goals.

Adding physical details like painted lines and footprints to direct foot traffic is one example of design nudging. The Toronto Transit Commission carried out a pilot project with this end in mind. Volkswagen’s ‘The Fun Theory’ demonstrates a similar example, that is even less about logistics. The company converted a public staircase into working piano keys, and observed as pedestrians became much more likely to take the stairs over the escalator.

Examples like these open endless possibility as to how behavioural nudging through smart design choices can influence more pro-social behavior. We can subtly encourage more social interaction by building pro-social spaces. Pro-social spaces can be extremely effective; they can foster feelings of belonging to a community, provide opportunities to improve trust levels and increase empathy and self-confidence. It is useful to look at how behaviours can change within pro-social spaces through “fun” designs.

We have all the tools available to bridge social isolation; now, it’s just a matter of making those connections. Through a combination of many small changes, we can create more connected cities where our quality of life doesn’t just improve, but thrives.