An age of intimacy

Everyone needs to feel valued. So, asks Kirstin Taylor, what is being done to help the nine million people in the UK who say they are often or always lonely?

Reports on the effects of loneliness make for sober reading. Loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are widely acknowledged to be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, increasing your risk of death by a staggering 29 per cent. Loneliness amongst the young is growing exponentially.

It is worth starting with where people should be able to get together – the public realm. Density of development is rising, but this does not mean that residents will meet any more easily. Too often it is the reverse. When masterplanning starts with the buildings, and the public realm is the land left over in between, it is unlikely to be a place to linger.

Loneliness is a serious condition. We are learning more about how it affects our health, making us vulnerable to disease and depression. Every positive relationship provides us with some immunity – even just casual, polite daily encounters. That’s why we need more spaces that encourage us to lift our heads from our digital devices and get to know each other better.

Here are five things that designers can do to support a new age of intimacy and help people feel they belong.

1   Mix it up

People like to live in interesting places with different things going on. Open spaces need flexibility built in, to host events, markets and mini-festivals. There should be a close weave of playgrounds, nature paths and quiet gardens. A communal table and a barbeque remind us how sociable balmy summer evenings can be. Community facilities should mix it up too, with senior centres alongside children day-care centres.

2   Design for bumping into each other

From shared private space to public realm, seize every chance to make people meet. Rooftop growing spaces create fine shared terraces. A chain of public courtyards can connect new residents to the wider community. Paths, gardens, parks and entrances should widen and constrict with encounter in mind. Provide community spaces with generous seating in sunny spots, and playful features for children to exercise on.

Palmerston Court – London’s first orchard in the skies, with the kinds of spaces people need to feel a sense of belonging

3    People know what they like

Give people a say in shaping their environment. Start conversations about what a worry-free public realm focused around community might feel and look like. Two thirds of people polled in a recent survey feel that a sense of community has declined in their lifetime but avoid making assumptions. A BBC survey found that younger people feel lonelier than older people, so listen especially hard to people looking for their first home.

4    Networks are more important than roads

Road design principles look to the past, not to the future. Walking and cycling doesn’t just make people fitter – it makes places more colourful and feel safer. Air pollution is being recognised as the killer it is. And yet, standard road design still crowns the car. For the regeneration of landmark estate Sighthill in Glasgow (pictured below), we decided to challenge this kind of old-school planning. We are replacing the main road with a ‘civic spine’, a boulevard designed for play, studded with seating and pocket parks. Small front gardens open directly off it. Local retailers help to animate it. 

Sighthill in Glasgow, with a boulevard and streets designed for play

5    Connect with nature

We all like to catch a spring scent and hear birdsong and research confirms the value of nature in terms of emotional and mental health and wellbeing. So, make space for wildlife. It is always thirsty, and even a small pond sparks human curiosity. Integrating the ecological life with the sensory and social life of the place needs thought, but it’s not difficult.

Finally, remember that a new age of intimacy is about strengthening family bonds as well as the community. Spaces devoted to nature and recreation support both. When you ask people what green space means to them, their response is often visceral. They will say that is where they get to know their children, and their children get to know them.

Kirstin Taylor is a director with LDA Design, and leads our Glasgow team. 

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