Combat social isolation with better street design

Let's take this problem outside!

This segment first aired in November 2016.

What does urban planning have to do with combatting loneliness? Well, plenty, as it turns out. That's because to create a vibrant community, you need to create a space with many opportunities for social interaction.

Rob Voigt is an urban planner and chair of the Planning Issues Strategy Group for the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

"It comes down to a public realm and the way that's designed," he says. That design needs to have areas where you "literally get out of your house and have places where you can meet other people."

That "public realm" Rob refers to includes streets, parks, libraries and any other public spaces. It's what he calls "the stage upon which public life is performed." And a huge part of that public life is how we connect with people in our communities.

Rob cites the workplace as an example of how North American cities limit our opportunities for interaction. "As more folks are working from home, we're noticing that there's a lot of people talking about social isolation. The talk around the water cooler is no longer there… that's why we're seeing the evolution of people starting to do a lot more of these co-working spaces."

Of course, lack of social interaction affects our health and well-being. "There's something about even just being amongst people -- you don't even need to have direct interaction -- but just seeing and being seen is something that is inherent to us as human beings for our mental health."

When it comes to combatting loneliness, Rob argues that urban planners need to better understand how people use public spaces and make them more inclusive, for all ages and backgrounds. And for us? "It's about being comfortable exploring your community. We just need to train ourselves to be as comfortable going there as we are checking out places online."


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