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People Live in Cities: An Analysis of Urban Planning’s Role in Loneliness

People Live in Cities: An Analysis of Urban Planning’s Role in Loneliness


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Technology and social media have allowed people to be more connected than ever. With the click of a button, an American teenager can laugh at a TikTok created by a German teenager. Yet, America is seeing record levels of loneliness. Where are these feelings of isolation coming from, and how can we solve them? For explanations, policymakers should turn away from the virtual and towards the physical. Recent research suggests that Urban Planning practices are quite literally dividing people. If urban planners build cities unsuited for socialization, then it is not shocking the inhabitants of these cities are lonely. Unfortunately, this is the exact position of contemporary cities. American cities nurture loneliness by hyper-focusing on cars to the detriment of alternative transportation and neglecting the creation of quality public spaces.

Policymakers should prioritize addressing loneliness because it harms mental and physical health. Humans are social creatures, so when they feel that even among others, they are alone, there are consequences. Studies tie loneliness to “various psychiatric disorders like depression, alcohol abuse, child abuse, sleep problems, personality disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease” (Mushtaq, et al.). Lonely people are less resilient to hardship and are at higher risk for mental disorders. Loneliness also deteriorates physical health. It is associated with “diabetes, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and cardiovascular diseases like coronary heart disease, hypertension (HTN), obesity, physiological aging, cancer, poor hearing and poor health” Mushtaq, et al.). Current research rejects the idea that loneliness is just a feeling; it is a dangerous condition with severe implications for one’s mental and physical health.

Policymakers should be alarmed by loneliness’s increasing prevalence. Research from the Survey Center on American Life finds that the amount of friends people have has “declined considerably over the past several decades” (Cox). Another study finds that more than a quarter of Americans report feeling lonely (Statista). More and more research paints a picture of a growing portion of socially isolated people. The steady increase in loneliness suggests that factors one may expect to indirectly mitigate the problem, such as population growth or technological advancements, can not tackle the issue. Policymakers should also discard any notion that current levels of loneliness are innate societal ills that cannot be addressed. In studies comparing international rates of happiness and loneliness, the United States is regularly outperformed by its European and Asian peers (Krekel & Nevel; Statista). If policymakers want to see a decline in social isolation, a structured and proactive approach is necessary.

American cities nurture loneliness by hyper-focusing on cars to the detriment of alternative transportation and neglecting the creation of quality public spaces.

When people imagine the major problem affecting them every day, urban planning is not the first thing that comes to mind. Politicians and voters alike seem united in disinterest in the field. In the aftermath of the passing of the massive infrastructure bill (the Infrastructure Investment, and Jobs Act), a survey found that “76” of likely voters were unaware it passed (Astrow & Kessler). With so many issues affecting citizens, it may seem reasonable that the concerns of city planners get little air time. While this may be an understandable misconception, it is nevertheless a misconception. The United States Census Bureau estimates that “80.7%” of Americans live in urban areas. For that 80%, a vital determiner of their wellness will be the city around them; thus, cities must be well-designed. This paper contends that current urban planning paradigms create cities that are breeding grounds for loneliness. If policymakers want to see a decline in social isolation, they must quickly gain an interest in the opinions and criticisms of urban planners.  

Current American urban planning discourages walking because cities are built to suit cars rather than humans. Americans were enthusiastic early adopters of cars. By 1929, “one American in five owned a car, compared to one out of every 37 English and one out of every 40 French car owners” (Mintz & McNeil). Automobiles swiftly went from a part of cities to the central force connecting them as cities swapped sidewalks and walkways for highways and parking lots, and urban areas became more and more car-centric. Although the busy wide interstates typical of urban America are practical for automobile usage, they often make traveling impossible for pedestrians. American sidewalks are narrow, sparse, and located in areas where cars fly by at high speeds. A survey of 709 retired Americans found that most stated they would never cross a busy street with heavy traffic (Carp). Pedestrians’ fears are not unfounded; compared to peer countries, the United States suffers from dramatically higher rates of deaths for pedestrians and bikers. Per kilometer, American pedestrian fatality rates are “5–10 times higher,” and biker fatalities are “4–7 times higher” (Buehler & Pucher). The American people are justifiably scared to walk across their own streets where sidewalks play second fiddle to highways.

Current American urban planning discourages walking because cities are built to suit cars rather than humans.

Many urban areas essentially require cars for traveling, which contributes to social isolation by diminishing the amount that people leave their homes. The Environmental Systems Research Institute estimates that while only 20% of Americans are a 10-minute walk from a grocery store, 92% of the population is a 10-minute drive (Herries). For most people, cars are a necessity for travel, so barriers to driving become barriers for all traveling. Imagine a person who is a 30-minute drive away from any family; gas prices become an obstacle to attending get-togethers and parties. Imagine a person who is a 30-minute drive away from any family; gas prices become an obstacle to attending get-togethers and parties. Environments where family and friends are a 30-minute drive away, rather than a short stroll, are not conducive to social interaction. City-dwellers are more reliant on cars and thus less likely to be within walking distance of friends and more likely to be affected by barriers to socialization. Predictably, polling finds that those in urban areas interact with their neighbors less than those in rural and suburban areas (Pew Research). When it costs money to leave your house and socialize, people socialize less. 

Another way car-centric cities harm their citizens is by placing a burden on parents. Cities that do not allow for travel by walking or biking require parents to essentially chauffeur their children. Researchers have found that urban sprawl in cities hinders the development of a child’s “social and motor development” and “puts a heavy strain on the parents” (Hüttenmoser, 403). Until 16, minors must rely on their parents and friends to take them to parties, playdates, and parks, hubs of socialization. Busy parents who lack time or parents who struggle to afford time may be less willing to drive their children to places; these parents risk an undersocialized kid that only interacts with peers at school. When children are all but stuck in their houses for the first decade and a half of their life, it is predictable that they feel lonely.

When children are all but stuck in their houses for the first decade and a half of their life, it is predictable that they feel lonely.

As an alternative to car-centric cities, America should strive to create walkable cities because they promote interconnectedness. A recent study on walkable cities found they “promote a sense of local identity” and were “strongly associated with better well-being and less loneliness” (Yu, Ruby, et al). Non-car means of transportation allow for interactions between individuals, which builds community. On a highway, other people become dehumanized into simple obstacles to a destination. By contrast, every person you encounter when walking is an opportunity for a conversation or interaction. The only time two drivers may interact is during a display of road rage, while fellow pedestrians may engage in small talk, meet each other’s pets, and more. Research suggests that similar logic can be applied to the benefits of biking; people are happier when they travel by bike rather than a car (Morris & Guerra). Walkability in cities enables methods of transportation that allow interaction between and increase the sense of community.

America’s cities need to be re-designed to prioritize the people that live there rather than cars. Current norms make walking not just unappealing but often dangerous for pedestrians. Moreover, high levels of urban sprawl mean that places of interest often require an automobile to reach. Cities that put driving over other alternative transportation place extra barriers on socializing. For many people, the choice to visit and family does not just come down to time but also: access to a car, gas money, and willingness to drive. Parents must weigh all these issues and more any time their child wants to play at the park. Much of combating loneliness comes from the small interactions people have. Walkable cities make it easier for people to travel to gatherings to have those social interactions. Furthermore, walking itself creates an opportunity for connections to form during travel. Thus, policy makers should take action to shift American urban design away from its current overreliance on cars.

Current norms make walking not just unappealing but often dangerous for pedestrians.

Thus far, this paper has discussed how American urban planning limits people’s ability to travel in ways that increase isolation. However, this is only one piece of the puzzle. It is meaningless if people can walk anywhere if there is nowhere to go. This is where public spaces come into play. Public spaces are “any variety of physical settings, from sidewalks to outdoor cafés to urban plazas” (Németh, 2464). Public spaces are places for people to gather; thus, they are hubs of social activity. Cities that aim to combat loneliness and promote community must have quality public spaces for people to mingle. However, “U.S. cities lack adequate access to parks and open space near their home” (Sherer, 8). Policymakers must address issues with public spaces, so cities can support the social needs of their citizens.

One way American cities can move to improve their public spaces is by increasing Green Spaces. Greenspace “is an umbrella term used to describe either maintained or unmaintained environmental areas” (Barton & Rogerton). Spending time in nature is tied to improvements in mental and physical health (Jimenez, et al.). Urban areas do not have as much wildlife as cities, but the people there still have the same need for nature. This is where green spaces come in. Recent research finds “there is good evidence of a positive relationship between levels of neighborhood greenspace and mental health and well-being,” (Barton & Rogerton). Greenspaces provide a place for city dwellers to get the benefits associated with natural environments.

Another way American cities can improve public spaces is by making them practical places to gather. Cities may have public spaces; however, those spaces may be dysfunctional. They may lack places to sit, have inconvenient entrances, or be in car-dominated areas that are dangerous for pedestrians (as discussed previously). Manhattan is an example of how poor practices can render public spaces useless. Decades of property owners “placing spikes on ledges, removing benches […], and constructing illegal fences to keep out the public” has left the city with “early 40 acres of uninviting bonus space” (Németh, 2474). If public spaces are uninviting, citizens will not use them. Wellmade public spaces, by contrast, help people feel “happier, comfortable, more secure” (Berg, et al.). Urban planners should seek to create new spaces and re-evaluate existing areas; A well-placed umbrella or table could be the difference between a good or bad public area.

If public spaces are uninviting, citizens will not use them.

Another way American cities can improve public spaces is by ensuring they are aesthetically pleasing. It may seem shallow to suggest that the prettiness of public spaces should be evaluated, but there is good reason to value that aspect. A study conducted in 2015 contends that the “aesthetics of the environment may have quantifiable consequences for our wellbeing” (Moat, et al.). They find “that inhabitants of more scenic environments report better health, across urban, suburban and rural areas” (Moat, et al.). Since public spaces are meant to attract people’s attention, it is logical they should be appealing to look at. Furthermore, citizens have to look at their public spaces often, so it goes without saying they will feel better if those areas are pretty. 

American cities need more and better public spaces because they facilitate connectedness and mental well-being. Public spaces provide areas for people to meet and gather, so they are a powerful weapon to fight loneliness in cities. Current public spaces have a lot of room for improvement. They should include nature through greenspaces, incentivize gathering, and be aesthetic. Americans should conceptualize their homes not just as houses but also as the broader city. Thus, they should expect cities to be more than just paths to houses and stores; they must include parks, walkways, and gardens. Fighting loneliness means providing places for people to take their friends and family; ergo, policymakers should investigate the condition of existing public spaces and look to create more.

Some may argue that this paper overstates the role of urban planning in loneliness. There are admittedly many factors contributing to the epidemic of loneliness; problems this big never have one cause. However, most first-world nations deal with similar issues: social media, political polarization, and worldwide increases in depression, yet these countries are not all fairing the same. Is it any coincidence that in rankings of happiest cities, countries with walkable cities and dominant biking cultures like Norway, Sweden, & Denmark dominate (Krekel & Nevel)? Consider why people make so many friends in college and then struggle socially after graduation. It is because colleges have a robust infrastructure. People live close to each other, walk to travel, and have common spaces designed to encourage interactions. One need not have to look abroad to see examples of the principles of good urban design promoting community: simply look at a local university. While it’s true many things are contributing to loneliness, urban planning’s role is evident through both direct association in research and casual observation.

Policymakers should prioritize addressing loneliness because it harms mental and physical health.

In discussions of loneliness and modern society, attention often shifts to the virtual. Many fixate on the role of technology and social media. While pondering tech’s role in loneliness is worthwhile, people should also be encouraged to think more literally. Not everyone uses Instagram, but everyone engages with their city’s infrastructure. As long as the structure of cities discourages socialization, people will continue to be alone. Cities are not merely economic hubs; they are where people live. They should not prioritize cars to the detriment of their citizens. Pedestrians should not be terrified to cross the street, nor should people be locked to travel by automobile. Cities should contain aesthetically pleasing places for people to hang out. Loneliness is not just a feeling; it is a condition that threatens the health of millions of Americans. If policymakers want to combat it, they must work with urban planners to design American cities made for people.

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Author

Destiny Hale
Destiny Hale is a student studying computer science. You can often find her messing around with various instruments, discussing art, and exploring different musical genres. She is an eager learner and aims to pick up one new fact a day. Destiny is fond of sharing her thoughts through writing as she continues to explore the many things the world has to offer.

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