Why Cities of the Future Could Be Very Lonely Places

And how shared spaces can help.

Social isolation is an epidemic that affects our mental and physical health, a wide-reaching problem that may get worse as our lives and cities becomes increasingly intertwined with technology. Some experts are offering an innovative solution though: Designing living spaces of the future to be more communal.

In this article on The Week, writer Jessica Brown explores how humanity will fare in “smart cities,” urban spaces where our relationship with and reliance on technology will reach a whole new level. These cities are “metropolitan areas where everything will be digitally connected,” Brown writes: Automation will be everywhere, from your kitchen appliances to institutions like hospitals. Brown points to United Nations estimates that suggest 66 percent of the world’s population will live in smart cities by 2050.

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These cities will likely worsen our existing isolation epidemic, says Brown. Calling it an epidemic isn’t hyperbole: Brown points to a New York Times article where researchers called “the profound effects of loneliness on health and independence” a “public health problem.” This isn’t just about feeling sad, either. Researchers found that living alone can increase your risk of premature death by 29 percent, Fast Company reports.

It’s not a stretch to imagine why living like this would make us lonelier and more isolated than we already are. Technological innovations like AI and automation (from Siri to self-checkouts at the grocery store) already reduce our social encounters, making it possible to go for long stretches of time without interacting with another human or filtering what interactions you do have through a screen.

Brown and Adele Peters, who wrote this Fast Company article about our growing isolation issue, propose an interesting solution: Communal living. This isn’t a new idea (Danish co-housing communities, for example, have been doing it for more than 50 years) but it may gain traction as people take the risks of loneliness more seriously.

Peters points to a 2017 TED Talk by architect Grace Kim as an example of how these living arrangements work. Kim, who lives in a co-housing community she designed in Seattle, says “loneliness can be the result of our built environment.” We’ve all experienced this: Functional design isn’t meant to encourage human interaction, so there aren’t many spaces purposefully designed for spending time together.

In Kim’s community everyone has their own person space, but families and individuals share common areas like courtyards and gather for meals a few times a week. Living in these types of communities could foster the sort of connections we need to be happy and healthy. A 75-year long Harvard Study found that having solid relationships can help keep the brain healthier as we age and may even help you live longer. As Kim says, “When I said earlier that co-housing is an antidote to isolation, what I should have said is that co-housing can save your life.”

The good news is that people seem open to living in these types of communities. Brown cites Helene Joffe, a professor of psychology at University College London, who told a Guardian panel that “when we ask people to think about their city aspirations, we find social connectedness comes out top of the list. People want to be part of a community in cities.” Companies are getting on board, too. Fast Company highlights Common and OpenDoor, two organizations that run co-housing spaces.

You don’t have to wait for the future to make living spaces less isolated though, or move into an adult-dorm situation just yet. It’s possible to make spaces around you more communal, even if they’re not designed that way. Try pocketing your phone in the elevator at work and asking the person next to you how their day is going or inviting your neighbors to join you for dinner this week.

Read more on The Week here and Fast Company here.