• Opinion
  • November 19, 2018
  • 10 minutes
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Triumph of the commons: how public spaces can help fight loneliness

Opinion: A decline in common, community space is helping drive social isolation

Public space is crucial to fighting loneliness

This opinion piece was written by Julia Hotz, Solutions Journalism Network. It was runner up of the 2018 Apolitical Young Thought Leaders competition. For more like this, see the other winning entries.


“Give people shared access to something useful, and they’ll surely exploit it and spoil the “common good”.” That’s an oversimplified version of Garrett Hardin’s iconic “Tragedy of the Commons” — an argument that helped shape Thatcher and Reagan’s privatisation policies in the decades following its 1968 publication.

But fast forward 50 years and find those two countries with the opposite problem: an overwhelming sense of “individualism”, and a crisis of community disconnect.

Loneliness, no longer an exclusive problem of the elderly, is estimated to affect nearly one in four Brits and one in five Americans . While its temporary form is healthy, chronic feelings of isolation and friendlessness flag concern, as “close social connections” are consistently the single biggest predictor of health and happiness. Absence of close friendships, meanwhile, has been linked to a variety of severe physical health consequences.

Tackling loneliness: a national priority

After the former US Surgeon General spoke of loneliness’ “epidemic proportions” and made the business case for reducing workplace isolation, a few scattered initiatives have since followed. Two states have mandated mental health education, while others have introduced public awareness programs.

Meanwhile, in Britain, where its nationalised healthcare system is already overwhelmed and underfunded, it made economic sense to take a coordinated approach. That logic helped establish the world’s first Minister of Loneliness last January, when the move was internationally lauded as a commitment to improve both mental and physical health of lonely Brits.

But the Ministry’s establishment also invited scepticism — with doubts about its political motives. Social scientists, meanwhile, point to the historically lacklustre results of loneliness reduction interventions; though limited to elderly demographics, one meta-analysis of 50 interventions found only four had showed significant differences between baseline and control groups of lonely participants.

Perhaps the devil’s in the details; since more than half of British adults say admitting to loneliness is “difficult”, what if policies — rather than promoting top-down intervention, for the minority who admit to feeling lonely — instead emphasised preventing loneliness in the first place?

A bottom-up “prescription” to prevent social disconnect

The ministry’s recently announced cross-party loneliness strategy seems to address just that. Key action items include disseminating an “Employer Pledge” to design more social workplaces, enlisting mailmen to check up on those at-risk of isolation, and — most robustly — doubling up on “social prescribing”, a process through which GPs refer patients to non-medicalised, community-based activities.

Multiple studies regard “social prescribing” as effective, with “prescribed” patients gaining self-confidence and reducing their social isolation, as well as making fewer GP visits. Yet those same studies also cite “poor design” and “weak implementation” as barriers preventing the strategy’s “full potential”.

Perhaps one implementation weakness is more obvious than others. Just as fish can’t swim without water, nor can victims of loneliness can’t reap the benefits of “social prescribing” without shared spaces to do so in. And in the wake of the UK’s increasingly obsolete religious buildings, defunded children’s centres, and unfinished community capital projects, the question of how to reduce loneliness is nearly synonymous with the question of where to reduce it. Besides libraries and parks — two time-proof spaces of publicly-accessible socialisation— which spaces lend themselves to meeting and making friends?

That’s the phenomenon that seemed to concern my interviewees — 20 Cambridgeshire residents who are categorically “lonely”, according to the conventional UCLA scale.

“Here, in Cambridgeshire, there lack public squares, and the squares are where life happens,” observed Maria, an Italian ex-pat whose survey revealed she often “lacks companionship” and “feels isolated”. “Everything revolves around the common square, but on the street, it’s difficult to make life.”

Laila, another lonely Cambridge ex-pat, also admitted her struggle to find sociable places. “When my husband and I moved here, because we failed to make friends “the natural way”, we would go into work on Saturdays,” she revealed. “It was so sad, but we thought it was better to at least be surrounded by people than to be alone.”

Upon asking participants about spaces that do foster friendships, Alex — a “severely lonely” British native — mentioned his university. “Socialising in dorms was where I made the most friends,” Alex recalled nostalgically. “That hall atmosphere was just a lot more social.”

Some cities have found socialisation successes in doing just that: constructing “dorm”-styled apartments for adults. The common space design certainly wouldn’t hurt matters in Britain, where more than half of residents describe their neighbours as strangers.

But even so, cohousing dorms — like universities themselves — are limited by affordability and access, as well as their lack of constructive social activity, which even Alex conceded. “These days, just sitting around and talking doesn’t appeal to me. There has to be something we’re doing.”

Tania, another lonely British native, echoed Alex’s point on socialising with “purpose”, speaking glowingly of her neighbour’s informal bread-making class. “Every Friday we get together, we have some cheese, and some wine, and we make bread,” she explained excitedly.

Common sense in common spaces

Tania’s “common space” is limited to those her neighbourhood. But the bread-making class does serve as a stellar template for policymakers to follow if reducing loneliness on the macro-level: by creating an inclusive, accessible common space where strangers could routinely bond through activity to form the “community”that they otherwise lack.

That’s the mission of programs like People’s Kitchen — a community workshop that collects surplus food — and people — to cook a free, weekly Sunday meal in a community space. With micro-grants from local councils and private foundations, People’s Kitchen has established three homes in estates, gardens, and playgrounds around London — drawing crowds of 30-100 for dinner, each time.

Yet Britain can learn from Australia, where the government oversees nearly 1000 shared social spaces, and recently invested in creating 90 more. Much like the purpose-driven socialisation model espoused by People’s Kitchen, these spaces — called Men’s Sheds — provide a concrete forum to help people (mainly men) bond “shoulder-to-shoulder,” through hands-on community projects.

Even beyond glowing anecdotes of programs like People’s Kitchen, or “life-saving” testimonies of Men’s Sheds, shared social spaces may offer quantitative success; a survey of nearly 1,000 respondents found a significant relationship between perceived quality of public open spaces and sense of community.

For policymakers, then, it comes down to the transitive property; if “high quality public space enhance sense of community”, and if “sense of community” is inversely related to loneliness, then creating shared social spaces could both reduce loneliness and prevent it from the outset.

Still, common spaces do require careful management. A report on the social value of public space from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes that social spaces take a commitment from users, too:

“The success … is not solely in the hands of the architect, urban designer or town planner; it relies also on people adopting, using and managing the space — people makes places, more than places make people. — Jules Hotz

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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