You are here

  1. Home
  2. Research asks - can we design places to combat loneliness?

Research asks - can we design places to combat loneliness?

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, Japan

How might where people live affect how lonely they feel? Loneliness – the feeling of being less connected with others than someone would like – is a well-documented and growing problem, which has significant impacts on physical and mental health. In 2018, the UK government identified loneliness as a public policy priority, and there have been reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased levels in multiple countries.

Understanding what drives and alleviates loneliness is therefore a pressing question for researchers and policy makers. Dr. Laura McGrath from the School of Psychology and Counselling recently published a systematic review of research aiming to understand one often overlooked factor: the role of the built environment. Laura was part of a team of researchers led by Dr Marlee Bower from the Matilda Centre at the University of Sydney, who set out to understand how people’s loneliness might be related to the places where they spend time.

Why the built environment? There is evidence that the kinds of buildings and neighbourhoods people live in can help to shape people’s psychological wellbeing. For this reason, the research team were curious as to whether there was evidence that the built environment specifically affects how lonely people feel. Researchers in the team were from different disciplines, as this is a topic which crosses a lot of areas of expertise: including psychologists, urban planners and geographers.

How did the research work?

Looking at peer reviewed research published in English, the team reviewed a large number of potentially relevant studies (over 7000!). They identified 57 studies which had directly looked at the relationship between the built environment and loneliness. The small number of studies internationally demonstrates that this is an area which needs more research. The studies included a focus on neighbourhood design, housing conditions, public spaces, transport infrastructure and natural spaces.

It was clear from the review that there was not a single or simple relationship between the built environment and people’s experiences of loneliness or connecting with others. Laura commented to clarify;

“This makes sense as people use buildings in all sorts of different ways and have differing relationships to the places where they live and work. There were, however, some indications that the way that the way that buildings and neighbourhoods are designed can make it either easier or harder to connect with other people.”

Living in a small flat, for instance, has been connected to loneliness. One study identified that a smaller space can make it harder to host people at home, which in turn could limit someone’s ability to make and sustain friendships. Living in housing which is poorly maintained can have a similar impact.

Can loneliness be tackled by changes to housing?

The study also found that access to good quality active (walking and cycling) and public transport on the other hand, seems to have a protective effect. So too does living somewhere with access to community centres and natural spaces. These are all aspects of people’s neighbourhoods which seem to help them to have casual interactions – bump into neighbours for a quick chat or come across people who are interested in similar events.

The study also highlighted the importance of feeling able to take up opportunities to connect with others. Feeling less safe in your home and neighbourhood – whether measured by fear of crime, fear of walking at night, or threat from pollution - was generally associated with higher levels of loneliness. Conversely, people who feel that they “fit in” with the people they live near also reported feeling less lonely, as did residents who were able to personalise their dwellings.

Laura summarises the possible impacts of this new take on loneliness:

“Taken together we can see that there may well be ways to intervene in building and neighbourhood design which might help to protect against growing levels of loneliness. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a magic form of housing or neighbourhood plan which can solve loneliness on its own. Places which make it easy rather than hard to bump into and connect with others certainly seem to help. Also important is creating communities where people feel safe, where they trust each other, and feel as though they belong.”

The full study "The impact of the built environment on loneliness: A systematic review and narrative synthesis" can be found on ScienceDirect.

Image credit: Timo Volz (c) Pexels

Request your prospectus

Request a prospectus icon

Explore our qualifications and courses by requesting one of our prospectuses today.

Request prospectus

Are you already an OU student?

Go to StudentHome