How not to feel lonely in the big city

The Loneliness Lab is a project born to make our cities more connected and welcoming places. A chat with co-founder Bethan Harris, who'll be speaking at Utopian Hours, the upcoming City Making Festival in Turin.

London has been named as one of the loneliest cities in the world, tells the Londoner Bethan Harris of Collectively, a non-profit of activists and innovators. “But loneliness isn’t unique to London, or the UK. It’s an issue that is prevalent across modern society”, she adds. That's why in 2018 Collectively founded the Loneliness Lab with Lendlease, a leading international property and infrastructure group. “The lab is calling on all sectors to work with us to design out the loneliness in our cities by surfacing, testing and scaling ideas that have the potential to make our cities more connected and welcoming places”, explains Bethan Harris. The project is born also after her personal experience. “When I moved to London in my early twenties it was one of the most lonely experiences of my life”, she tells Domus. “Even though I had friends in the city, we were all spread so far apart and the places to meet up after work in the centre were really expensive”. It was different and harder than living in the small university city where she had studied and lived. “We all lived in one suburb and could pop into each other’s houses. We also had an endless supply of sports spaces and cheap pubs to meet up in too”, Bethan Harris remembers. “London is a big city and it’s easy to get swallowed up. There’s also a lot of inequality“.

Is the city getting better since you moved?
Sadly I think London has now got worse, rents have risen so young people moving there now have to live even further out of the centre. And freelancing can be painfully lonely, working from home. One of the best things about working on the lab is it has inspired me to meet other freelancers and bring people together. A group of us now go walking on Friday mornings so we can debrief on the week!

22% of millennials say that they have no friends. Do you think that this condition is reversible or is humanity going toward a state of “natural” loneliness?
Society has definitely become more individualistic. But I’m an optimist. I believe loneliness is the symptom of this and we’re starting to notice it on mass and realise its not good for us. With issues like climate change on the horizon, community is going to be even more important.

How can design fight loneliness? Could you list me some examples?
I love the recent winner of the Stirling Prize, a social housing community. A quarter of the site is a communal space. Cars are pushed to the perimeter of the site in favour of a shared communal garden and play area for kids. People have come first and it’s a blueprint for what housing can and should be like. A more everyday simple example is spaces in offices where colleagues can naturally bump into each other, for example, bike stores and changing areas that encourage dwell time or shared eating areas that encourage communal eating.

Which is Lendlease's role in the Loneliness Lab?
They're currently developing large areas of London. There’s a real opportunity to influence the way the future of these places is designed with loneliness in mind. I’ve been so impressed working with them over the last year. Not only are they funding the lab and the emerging ideas, but over 25 people from around the business are part of the lab. They are embedding tackling loneliness into their day jobs and driving forward the experiments, whether that’s as workplace designers, designers, developers or community engagement leads. It’s really inspiring. 

What's the role of social media and all the digital platforms that we use to communicate and feel a bit less lonely?
Digital connection is both a solution and a problem when it comes to loneliness. When we’ve been speaking to young people we often hear that they feel quite socially anxious about socialising in the real world, as they are so used to interacting online.

Why do you try to fight loneliness with design, instead of designing a good experience of being alone?
We want both. To help people feel good about being alone, and to have good design that enables that. Just last week I had a terrible experience at a restaurant. I wanted to eat alone as I was travelling for work but the instant I stepped foot in the restaurant I felt like a second class citizen. I was made to sit in a harshly lit row of stools near the kitchen, dedicated to people on their own, while all the other diners ate in this cosy back area. This is where design comes in. Imagine a restaurant design that might you feel you belonged even on your own. 

In her fundamental book about solitude in a metropolis, The Lonely City, British writer and critic Olivia Laing draws an ideal dialogue between her and many artists who experienced loneliness and found inspiration in it. What's the role of art in your work?
Art was very much embedded in the project. At our launch event, we invited our guests to experience an immersive art project called London is Lonely, where they heard anonymous voices of lonely Londoners, alongside a walk through a gallery of images. The art project really helped ground the project in real human experience and build empathy.

Male and female: do they interact differently with loneliness in the city? Research by the UK government shows that women are more likely to say they experience loneliness, but this could be attributed to men being less likely to admit they are lonely. This is certainly something that’s played out in the lab - we find more women are open to talking about than men.

How do you imagine loneliness in the city of the future? The optimist in me wants to imagine things are better. That through the Lab, we have been able to shape/design cities so that they’re fit for social interaction and meaningful connections. There are places we can go alone and there are places that make it easy to socialise. I also want to imagine that people naturally know their neighbours, because the way our streets and apartments are designed helps us bump into each other more. But I know we have a long way to go to achieve that.

Utopian Hours is the International City Making Festival, held in Turin October 18-20. More info here.

Opening picture: Affordable Housing - Homes for All Dortheavej Residence, Copenhagen, from the Urban Times exhibition of Utopian Hours.

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