The development of cities as cultural, economic, and political hubs over the course of history has led to a trend of increased urbanisation, meaning the movement of people from rural to urban areas. This trend is still continuing today – more than half of the global population resides in cities, and the United Nations predicts that 68% of people will live in cities by 2050.
The impacts of urbanisation are plentiful with the numbers speaking for themselves. In the 1950s, there were only two megacities (cities with over ten million inhabitants), New York City and Tokyo - today there are approximately* 34 megacities. Another example – from 1950 to 2018, the urban population grew almost sixfold from 751 million to 4.2 billion people. Experts only expect these numbers to continue climbing, estimating that by 2030, there will be a total of 43 megacities around the globe.
Despite the opportunities that urbanisation brings, there are also different environmental effects, as well as social effects. One of the many effects is an increased sense of loneliness among the populace – so much so that we are starting to witness an epidemic of loneliness. This is happening despite the fact that cities are the precise places that provide so many possibilities for more human connectivity, or at least that is what one would think. So, what explains this phenomenon, and what does it mean?
In order to explain this dichotomy of increased loneliness despite living among so many people, it first makes sense to delve deeper into the concept of loneliness. Loneliness is defined as a ‘feeling of distress that results from a discrepancy between one’s desired and actual social contact’. Occasional feelings of loneliness are completely normal, but if these feelings persist for long periods of time, they can have detrimental impacts on our health, both mentally and physically. Loneliness is associated with increased rates of depression, anxiety, stress, heart disease, high blood pressure, and more. It has such a profound effect on human beings because we are inherently social creatures that rely on each other for our well–being.
Despite the fact that loneliness runs contrary to our natural tendency to be around other people, it is a health issue that has risen to the forefront over the last few years, especially since the Covid–19 pandemic. The pandemic forced us to reduce our social contacts to a minimum and to isolate ourselves from the outside world – no wonder then that this also had profound impacts on people’s mental health, increasing the prevalence of loneliness. While the world has now largely returned to normal, the issue of loneliness still prevails. Before the pandemic, levels of chronic loneliness in the United Kingdom stood at 5% in 2018, rose to 7.2% at the peak of the pandemic, and remain at 7.08% today. Another post–pandemic study conducted in the United States in 2021 found that one in six Americans feel lonely. These studies seem to point towards a worrying trend, which is why it is being referred to as a silent epidemic.
So, you might wonder, what do cities have to do with it? Cities are bustling with people and offer countless points of interaction, whether it’s colleagues at work, fellow concertgoers, running clubs, bars, cultural centres such as museums, workshops, and so much more. Well, it turns out that just because there are many people around does not mean that the interactions fulfil our social needs. The particular type of loneliness experienced in cities is called urban loneliness. Living in cities is associated with feelings of animosity due to living among millions of strangers, less community engagement, and the trend of increased solo dwelling, all of which contribute to urban loneliness.
Researchers at King's College London conducted a study in which they developed an app to track loneliness in cities. They sent 756 participants located around the globe randomised prompts about how they were feeling at a particular moment, wherever they were at the time. The total of 16602 assessments gathered from this app showed that ‘being in overcrowded environments increased loneliness by up to 38%’, even when considering other factors such as age or occupation. Additionally, they found that social inclusivity led to a 21% decrease in loneliness, leading to the conclusion that the quality of our relationships is more significant than the amount of social contact we have.
What can be done to combat this loneliness epidemic? Experts are saying that efforts should be made for cities to work on community building. For example, Ray Oldenburg, an American sociologist, coined the concept of creating a ‘third place’ to decrease levels of loneliness: the first place is our home, second places are where we spend most of our time, such as schools or work, and third places are open public spaces to mix, such as community gardens or farmer’s markets. The point is to have spaces that feel smaller and more accessible in the overwhelming magnitude of cities. Other solutions to decrease loneliness include creating more green spaces, which have proven to reduce loneliness, and introducing multi–generational housing, which encourages more interaction between different generations and gets people to get to know their neighbours, especially within apartment buildings.
The loneliness epidemic is linked to several changes in modern society – the speed of urbanisation, the increased norm of solo dwelling, the replacement of human interaction with social media networks, and much more. What is clear is that this health issue is spreading at an alarming rate, and active steps need to be taken to combat it. Urban planners, community leaders, and communities themselves all have a role in making cities more liveable and less lonely.
*Estimates of the number of megacities differ based on different definitions of megacities
Written by Lily Meckel
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