The Rideau Canal, Ottawa, taken by me on a solitary walk on a July morning, 2016.
It’s been a while since I’ve last written a blog post. In the meantime, my classes and the search for a summer job have both been demanding yet rewarding. Since my last blog post, I’ve come across a podcast called ‘The Lonely Hour,’ with which I’ve explored the feeling of loneliness through multiple avenues. Some I’ve identified with, and some not; mental illness, motherhood, travelling, writing, and even dining alone are some of the topics it explores. In one episode, there was talk of how cities can make you feel lonely. This is the relationship I attempt to explore in this blog post.
In ‘The Lonely Hour’ episode 10, traveller Matt Gross recites his essay, ‘I’m Never Alone Anymore, and I Miss It.’ While answering some questions afterwards, the relationship between cities and loneliness was brought up, which inspired this blog post. I’ve included it below:
‘Do you find that some cities are more lonely-making than others? And if so, how so?’
‘Cities can be very lonely making because they’re cities – they’re places where lots of people go to be anonymous, to live choc-a-bloc with their neighbours, yet not know them. People in some ways go there to be alone, to be lonely, but also be in a position where their solitude makes it possible to meet people. So, I’m not sure if there are particular cities that do that more than others – the bigger they are, the messier they are, sure. It has to do more, though, with the particular culture of the country: whether people talk to strangers; whether people are looking to have conversations; whether they’re outgoing. Certain cities like Buenos Ares and Ho Chi Minh City are great for being alone! Everybody wants to talk to you, it’s wonderful! It’s hard to be lonely just sitting on a bench drinking a beer or fresh coconut juice there. But other cities, I don’t know, Chongqing in Southwestern China, that’s not a great place to be alone. Nobody will talk to you, nobody will pay attention to you. There’s too many millions of people, too many billions of activities going on for anyone to notice that you’re there. It can be a pretty lonely place.’
What is loneliness?
In order to accurately assess the relationship between loneliness and cities, there is one very important word that should be defined: loneliness. I think loneliness is different to everyone, in terms of what it is connected to, what evokes it, and how to overcome it (if at all). To me, and from what I know, loneliness is the personal experience had when there is too much silence and too little engagement going on for too long of a time. It’s up to the person to define how and where those lines are drawn – I think everyone has a different threshold for accepting independence and solitude before it becomes lonely, as everyone leads a different social life under different circumstances.
Everyone deals with loneliness differently, and it can be equally understood as a negative, positive, or neutral emotion. It definitely has stronger negative connotations, for example, in the thesaurus you can find ‘loneliness’ is apparently synonymous with ‘heartache,’ ‘desolation,’ and even ‘friendlessness.’ However, loneliness can be a freeing lesson that can teach one how to live alone, which is something I’m learning right now. Ultimately, it’s an emotion that is just as valid as happiness or anger, and should be given the same amount of attention.
It seems ironic that cities are hot spots for loneliness, because there are so many people living there compared to rural communities. It’s quick for people to assume that where there are more people, there is a bigger opportunity for conversation and connection. Mathematically, of course, this makes sense. However, behaviourally, this isn’t so. At least, this isn’t true for every city on the map. This brings me to the question: why? How do cities affect how people interact with each other, and why do they have the affect that they do? Whether cities have a positive, negative, or neutral affect on human interaction, this seems to be due to a mix of reasons which all interact with each other as mechanisms driving human behaviour and influencing human emotive response.
From my own observations, I’ve noticed that whether or not I feel connected to people in my community is a result of how the community is built, the culture of the community, to what extent I can be engaged in the community, and to what extent I actively engage myself.
Loneliness and the Built Environment
I’ll start with commenting on my first noted element affecting human emotion: the built environment. I’ll specify and say that by this I mean how the community is organized physically, what physical amenities are offered, and where all of the elements of the community are placed with respect to each other.
In my planning classes, I have learned again and again how the built environment can influence social isolation in a community. The example used time and time again that speaks to this sentiment is suburban built form. It is argued that suburbs influence social isolation (which can be exacerbated to loneliness) because of multiple reasons: they are homogenous and uninteresting; they offer no connections to meaningful destinations if you are not driving a car; the layout of the community demands a car for travel which isolates people from each other; and they are physically isolated from other parts of the city which offer an opportunity for community engagement and human interaction. I’ve included a visual below to help you understand why:
Perhaps now you see what I mean about the lack of connections accessible to the individual when you stray from the urban form of the core of the city, which is often built in either gridiron form or some form offering a similar amount of connection opportunities (which I define as intersections). It is easy to see how the Warped Parallel, Loops and Lollipops, and Lollipops on a Stick forms don’t do a lot of justice for human interaction – these forms do not support a mix of land uses (residential right beside community stores, for example) resulting in a homogenous society where everyone only eats and sleeps in the community between travelling to and from work. Here, there is very little opportunity for community engagement such as neighbourly chitchat, except when you and your neighbour travel from your front doors to your cars in the driveway every morning.
Of course, built form isn’t directly nor is it solely correlated with loneliness – that is to say, just because you live in the suburbs, does not necessarily mean you are feeling lonely all of the time. It is arguable, however, that you are greater subject to loneliness than people who live in city centres which boast the opportunity for multiple activities at all times of the day. Even still, the built environment is definitely not the only mechanism at play in affecting people’s emotions or solitude. Here I argue that the culture of the community (or region, or even country in general) has a very large impact on a person’s solitude and, hence, loneliness.
Loneliness and Culture
In his interview on The Lonely Hour, Matt Gross mentions ‘whether people talk to strangers; whether people are looking to have conversations; whether they’re outgoing’ is a playing factor in determining whether a city is lonely-making. For the purposes of this blog post, I argue that rather than the culture of the country, it’s more the culture of the community that plays this role. (However, I say that as a Canadian in an ultimately multicultural national community – in a much smaller country such as Liechtenstein, for example, the culture of the country may be spread nationally. But this is just arguing semantics.)
This is interesting to consider, and it’s different for every place. In your city, are people welcoming? Do you say hello to people passing by the street, or is it at the very least not too weird to smile to them? Are there lots of different ethnic cultures in your community, and are they culturally accepted by your neighbours? Are there events that you can participate in around your community which you feel wholly welcome to join? If you are actually playing along and answered these questions negatively, perhaps your community is subject to being more lonely-making than other communities which are more welcoming, accepting, and engaging.
Loneliness and You
Even after the considerations this post makes, the biggest lonely-making factor is yourself (at least, this is what I’m arguing). A city or community could offer so many social connection points, social activities, parks and green spaces, a welcoming atmosphere, and it would still be you who is in the driving seat making the decisions of where and how to participate in your community, if at all.
An example to illustrate this which I’m very familiar with is myself. I go to an engaging university through which I participate in some volunteering, I go outside a fair amount and take the bus at least twice a weekday, and I go out some nights with friends. I have a lot of friends in my program and in many faculties while also maintaining lots of long-distance friendships. I’m confident with myself and can easily chat with strangers, and the communities I’m a part of are what I would consider welcoming, interesting, and friendly. Even with all of this that my city offers and which I engage in, I still find myself experiencing loneliness at times when I didn’t even know it had creeped up on me. Is this the city’s fault? I doubt it – Kitchener-Waterloo is definitely a place with an engaging atmosphere, offering so many things to do and places to visit. Rather, my loneliness might be a result of some personal decisions of which the built environment and culture of the community were seperate. My emotions might be influenced by the built environment and culture of my community, however, these are not the decisive factors; I am seperate from the place in which I live.
The idea for this blog post sparked after listening to that podcast episode, but it really came into fruition as a university student who is experiencing living in a relatively unfamiliar city on my own. Then again, I will be living in another relatively unfamiliar city when I move for my co-op job in the summer, then I will be back here in Kitchener-Waterloo for another four months, then off to who knows where for another four months for co-op, and so on. I anticipate the University of Waterloo’s co-op stream to be very lonely-making as I experience living in a new place every four months after this summer, testing relationships with all of my friends. I wanted to explore how cities influence our emotions because I’ll be exploring new cities every other four months for the next three years, and I think it’s good to prepare myself for the loneliness which that may cause.
With that said, I hope you learned something new about how you are emotionally connected to your community, and perhaps how your city’s built form or culture has affected your mental health, if at all. To learn more about how people are approaching loneliness in cities around the world, check out the links below:
Talk To Me London – an initiative to curb London’s norm of ignoring passers-by
Edmonton has a Mental Health Action Plan – does your city have one?
‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Liang (review) – now on my reading list.
I take a lot of time coming up developing blog post ideas because I really like to put a lot of thought and research into them. I hope to have another one up before April, but March is a very heavy month in terms of class work, so we will see about that…