“Minister of loneliness” will get to work

This may be a new governmental role in the 21st century: minister of loneliness.

On Wednesday, the U.K. made political history by creating an entirely new, untried political role: the world’s first “minister for loneliness.” The post is designed to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life” for many people…

The scope and effects of loneliness are unquestionably devastating. Half a million British people over 60 only talk to another person once a week or less. People who self-report as lonely are more likely to experience dementia, heart disease, and depression. When it comes to life expectancy, the long-term health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day

So what could a minister do to ease this situation? The issues spread across a very wide range of policy areas—and that’s kind of the point. A minister for loneliness could potentially have a trans-governmental scope, pressing policy-makers, businesses, and individuals to look at a whole range of decisions through the lens of loneliness.

I was reminded of this recently by a book that suggested cities can contribute to profound social isolation for some. And pair this with the idea that social media can lead to isolation and you have much of the modern world: urbanized and Facebooked.

I would be interested to see if such a minister sticks to small changes across a range of social spheres or tackles some of the broader issues like the individualism and autonomy promoted through the last few centuries of Western life. Is there any chance a Western government would promote less individualism in order to help promote less loneliness? Or, put another way, what would be the tipping point to convince a public that they should give some individual liberty in order to together tackle social isolation?

Does sprawl contribute to difficulty for adults in making friends?

One writer suggests the suburbs and their isolated spaces reduce the opportunities for friendship:

But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere…

One is living in a real place, with shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist. (I live in North Seattle, undoubtedly coded as urban for census purposes, but my walkshed is pretty lame. Meanwhile, a few miles south of me they’re building million-dollar single-family homes square in the middle of a perfect walkshed, right across from the zoo.)

A robust walkshed is an area in which a community of people regularly mingles doing errands, walking their dogs, playing in the parks, going to school and work, etc. Ideally, cities would be composed of clusters of such walksheds, connected by good public transit…

Both these alternatives — walkable communities and co-housing — likely sound exotic to American ears. Thanks to shifting baselines, most Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.

Five quick thoughts:

  1. There is a lot of emphasis on the nuclear family in the United States, whether in suburbs or other areas. This could be contrasted with other societies that place more emphasis on multigenerational households or living near extended families.
  2. You don’t necessarily have to be in a city to have public spaces or walksheds like these. Many Americans express a preference for small towns and these communities can often be tight knit. Or, you could have denser areas in suburbs that have such public spaces.
  3. The article argues that college is a good example of what can happen when people are put in close proximity. I would argue that college is a very unusual outlier for many Americans where they are forced (they pay for this too) to live in close proximity and then spread out as soon as they get a chance. In fact, many college students try to get out of dorms ASAP while many others are commuters. The residential college experience is not one everyone experiences and it is an unusual setting for relationships.
  4. The broader American emphasis on individualism makes friendships more difficult regardless of public spaces. Think of the frontier or pioneer mentality or our current celebration of mavericks and solo entrepreneurs. Did Steve Jobs need friends? Would Americans have fulfilled their Manifest Destiny if they had stayed in their neighborhoods or small towns?
  5. Does the data back this up? What if Americans are satisfied with their friendships? Does the number of close friends differ by spatial context? This argument is made via anecdote but there are plenty of surveys that ask about friendships. For example, here is a simple table with GSS data on how much satisfaction Americans get from their friendships by spatial context:


The differences in this table are not large but this incomplete analysis suggests people from smaller communities derive more satisfaction from their friendships.

Living in a more isolated neighborhood of McMansions could limit how long you live?

In discussing a recent piece  from sociologist Eric Klinenberg about how cities can better prepare for climate change and natural disasters, MarketWatch jumps to an odd conclusion about McMansions and longevity:

As politicians and civil servants study how to prepare communities for the possible effects of future disasters or climate change, Klinenberg writes, they’re taking social infrastructure into account. And while it’s tricky to extrapolate broader lessons from these very specific situations, Klinenberg’s work does seem to reinforce the broader point that, for older people, social isolation can become a health threat in its own right. For the baby boomer trying to decide between a “Main Street” condo and a McMansion, or a retirement community and a farmhouse, it’s food for thought.

I don’t understand why a McMansion is mentioned here. The suggestion does fit with general stereotypes that neighborhoods of McMansions tend to be antisocial places where wealthy suburbanites only want to retreat to their electronics and nuclear families rather than engage the broader world. Critics suggest McMansions are all about privatization and not engaging with others. Hence, solutions to McMansions and sprawl such as New Urbanism tend to design things in such a way to encourage more interaction.

But, this connection doesn’t necessarily fit with Klinenberg’s analysis of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago. McMansions tend to be located in wealthier areas where people have the resources to access other forms of social support. In other words, would you be better off in a dense urban neighborhood with a strong social infrastructure or a looser suburban neighborhood with more money? Also, do a McMansion and a farmhouse really fit in the same category for isolation?

In the end, I would like to see data that people living in McMansions suffer in terms of longevity because of their houses and neighborhoods as compared to other settings.

Using the Internet to meet your neighbors

The New York Times takes a look at Nextdoor.com, a website that privately allows neighbors to meet each other and interact online:

Nextdoor’s site provides a house-by-house map of neighbors who are members — although members can choose not to have their names attached to their addresses — as well as a forum for posting items of general interest; classified listings for buying, selling or giving away things; and a database for neighbor-recommended local services.

The company, which introduced its service last October, says it has set up more than 2,000 such neighborhoods in the United States, each containing about 500 to 750 households. These mostly follow boundaries defined by Maponics, a supplier of geographic data…

Neighborhood identity has not been destroyed by the Internet. Robert J. Sampson, a sociology professor at Harvard, says: “There’s a common misreading that technology inevitably leads to the decline of the local community. I don’t believe that. Technology can be harnessed to facilitate local interactions.”…

In his new book, “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect,” Professor Sampson argues that worries about the supposed loss of community in cities are nothing new. In 1938, for example, the sociologist Louis Wirth described “anonymous” and “superficial” social relations as essential elements of urbanism. But Professor Sampson says that this ignores the way that a city was, and remains, ordered by distinctive neighborhoods — what he calls “the enduring significance of place.”

Sampson’s comments give me an idea (which I’m sure others have already discovered): the Internet itself is a place/space that is built upon existing places. Another way to think about this is that the Internet is another social layer that both interacts with existing places but also has its own places and rules of social conduct. People can interact more with those who live near them and/or they can choose to interact with people around the world (that were previously unavailable to them). This is not the same as places like “Second Life” – it seemed to me that a lot of academics were really interested in this idea as they were curious to see how people would handle being in a new realm they could help create – as programs like Facebook or Nextdoor don’t let people completely escape from their surroundings and may just enhance existing acquaintances and relationships. Going forward, should we think of Facebook as a new kind of extended neighborhood?

Sampson’s ideas also are an interesting reply to questions like whether Facebook is making us lonely. Sampson is not the only sociologist who is arguing that the Internet does not necessarily isolate people.

Artists imagine post-apocalyptic world in terms of empty cities

Two artists from France have put together a collection of photographs that feature famous city settings – with no people:

In Silent World, artists Lucie and Simon have taken the world’s most familiar and populous cities and removed all but one or two people to create the illusion of a lonely world.

In the thought-provoking work, places like the normally bustling Times Square and Tiananmen Square appear absent of their crowds.

Lucie and Simon are a duo of artists based in Paris, France, who have been working together since 2005.

According to their website, the award-winning artists focus on blurring the line between reality and fantasy in their work.

The pictures are interesting and there is even a video with the photographs and some ominous music.
But I’ll be honest: I don’t find these photos to be too jarring. There are two other forms in which I think these scenes are much more powerful:
1. Post-apocalyptic movies do a decent job with this. However, I think too many of them go for the destruction angle rather than the emptiness angle. Additionally, they often try to drive home the point too much with things like eerie music and/or loud wind noises.
2. Real life. While these artists have removed people and vehicles, you can approximate some of this in places by walking or driving around very early in the morning. That way, there is still some light but there may be no one else around. This can be very strange: the buildings are around and it looks like there should be activity but there is no one there. Or another example: walking through the Loop in Chicago later at night. Without the business activity, it is a lonely place.
What would be most disconcerting in these scenes if you were there all day by yourself. I’m reminded looking at these pictures that many of these cityscapes are not built to a human scale. For example, a lone person in Times Square without people around is simply dwarfed by the buildings. It is not just about being alone; it is also about the massive buildings around you that make you feel insignificant. Similarly, large plazas or wide highways are also not often conducive to human activity but we forget some of this when they are full of people. It reminds me of Jane Jacob’s work in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: it is more human-scale neighborhoods that people flock to anyway, not downtowns and their skyscraper canyons. In a post-apocalyptic world, people will look for other people and the majority of New Yorkers don’t live in places like Times Square. What might be even more jarring would be walking around an empty Greenwich Square.

Men’s Health on the isolation of suburbia

One can find commentary about suburbs almost anywhere, including at a Men’s Health blog. Here are their thoughts about the isolation of suburbia:

Researchers note that urbanites find liveliness, other people, and diversity more satisfying than those in the suburbs do. Suburbanites seem to find more satisfaction in economic status…

In the process, we replaced urban “stoop culture” with isolation. “Immigrants and other urbanites used to have casual interactions on a daily basis,” she says. “But once people started moving to the suburbs, they lost that sense of spontaneous social interaction.”

Sure, suburbanites technically could have walked the distance to their neighbor’s house. But the focus was more on individual households—partly due to the decline of the extended family. “Moving to the suburbs also meant moving away from your extended family into single family households,” Park explains.

This made our individual—fenced in—households the focus of our lives. Not just that—our new neighbors had different backgrounds and we had less in common with them, meaning forming new relationships took even more effort. (Fortunately, we finally had the TV to turn to instead!)…

The problem isn’t really suburbia itself; it’s isolation, which can affect anyone. (Fess up, city dwellers. Do you really even know who lives next door?)

On one hand, this post trades in some common images of suburbia: isolated homeowners who really live in “Disturbia, USA” (in the headline) and a thesis that asks “what’s wrong with the modern suburb?.” On the other hand, this issue of isolation is a commonly-cited problem in American life today. Interestingly, the last part of the post I cited above suggests the problem of isolation is found in both cities and suburbs. So is the problem really suburbia or is suburbia simply a symptom of larger issues of individualism and status-seeking within American culture?