In 2017, a study by the institute Splendid Research revealed that almost 12 percent of Germans often or always feel lonely. Similarly, in Great Britain, every seventh person is socially isolated, a condition that motivated Prime Minister Theresa May to assign a "Minister for Loneliness" in January. Since then, the problem has been widely debated as the result of loose family networks, superficial social media relations and poor welfare that does not give everyone the resources to participate in social activities. "But loneliness is also related to the fact that apartments, houses and architecture in general often are not designed in a way that it is possible for people to live in contact with others", says Anne Wagner. Although she has elderly people in mind, her observation applies to society at large. To answer the question of why so many people are lonely, it is vital to look at how the places where we live encourage — or discourage — social interaction.
Lack of Relationships
"To begin with, loneliness is not synonymous with being alone", states Dr. Maike Luhmann, psychologist from the University in Cologne. The professor, who has researched the prevalence of loneliness in Germany, explains that it appears when a person perceives a "discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships." There is no objective measurement — the same situation can be distressing for one person, and comfortable for another.
Usually, research on loneliness consists of surveys, where participants are asked to indicate on a scale how often they feel left out. During such a study in 2016, Luhmann dismissed the stereotype that loneliness is a problem restricted to elderly people. Quite the contrary, the researcher found the overall lowest levels of loneliness around the age of 75. Above this age however, social isolation reaches a peak. But loneliness is also elevated in young adulthood, among people in their late twenties and early thirties. It took two years until Luhmann's study gained significant interest in early 2018. After the British government assigned a "Minister of Loneliness", the topic became viral and the professor from Cologne received so many media inquiries that she decided not to give any further interviews. This indicates a changing pattern: once stigmatized and considered as a lack of social skills, loneliness is now entering the public debates across European countries.
Ignoring and stigmatizing the feeling of isolation is absurd, just as nobody would ignore hunger or thirst. This is how Dr. John Cacioppo from Chicago sees loneliness: a sign of the body that something essential is lacking, namely social connections. Cacioppo, who is considered the founding father of social neuroscience and passed away recently, emphasized a fundamental characteristic of humans: "Our survival depends on our collective abilities, not on our individual might." Two kinds of relationships matter: sporadic face-to-face encounters with strangers or people we know superficially, like the cashier of the nearby supermarket, and close relationships that we build over time. Both affect the perception of social connectivity. "But the number of such ties and the density of our social networks are poor predictors of whether people feel socially connected or isolated", Cacioppo stated. "Instead, it is the quality of one's close relationships that matters."
As a social species, humans instinctively build relationships. Therefore, our natural habitat matters: towns and cities. Not only do we settle down in a defined space — we also define this space, by building streets and houses, transforming parks, piling up towers. How do our constructions comply with our social needs?
Back in June 2012, on a warm morning, a group of people rush through the streets of Berlin: from a traffic intersection at Torstraße, along the concrete facades of a shopping center to the green spaces of the cemetery St. Mary and St. Nikolai. With their white clipboards in the hand, they look like researchers exploring the urban jungle around them, when indeed they are being investigated themselves. While they are taking notes on their environment, a bracelet on their wrist measures their arousal. Later, in the laboratory, all these data are put together to produce a psychogram of the city.
In the past years, researchers have found that people living in the cities have an increased risk of suffering from certain psychological diseases compared to rural residents. Depressions and anxieties are 40 percent more common among urban dwellers, while the probability of developing schizophrenia is elevated by 130 and 190 percent for women and men respectively. The psychiatrist Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg from the University of Heidelberg found that city life causes neurological changes and over-stimulates those areas in the brain that are responsible to alert in situations of danger. His colleague Dr. Mazda Adli from the Charité in Berlin compares city life to a ride in an overcrowded train, with the difference that one cannot simply get off at the next stop. He concludes that "the combination of social density and isolation, together with a feeling of losing control, cause stress in the city."
This relation between urban life and psychological problems is widely uncontested. But what about the impact that city design has on social connectivity? The experiment in Berlin in 2012, that has been carried out by the BMW Guggenheim Lab in the German capital, New York and Mumbai, visualized what scientists had already suspected before: the shape of the built environment has a direct impact on the mood of people inhabiting it. Participants of the survey turned out to feel the happiness close to green spaces and permeable facades. Walking along monotonous buildings with uninterrupted walls let their mood drop, and they subconsciously walked faster.
Independently of that, psychologists have also found that humans are more likely to help other people if they are in a positive mood. Stress, time pressure and negative emotions dissuade people of approaching others. Hence, the experiment in Berlin has shown that there are such things as unsocial buildings and streets — those that discourage a chat, a pause, an interaction with another person — and contribute to a feeling of loneliness.
Freedom and Instability
Since the 1940s, Germany and many Western societies have been reshaped by what sociologists label "social transformation". Personal freedom and the individual search for satisfaction have gained importance, whereas traditional family ties have become weaker. Today, 41 percent of German households consist of only one person, according to the Federal Statistical Agency. Marriages are no longer enshrined for a lifetime, and many people divorce, marry again, build patchwork families or stay single. The freedom has come with instability, which can also be observed by the frequency with which young people change their employer. Almost a fourth of young workers have temporary contracts and are ready to move to another place if the search for work demands it.
Under these conditions, building and maintaining deep relationships has become more challenging, despite the facilitating role of social media: sociologists from the Netherlands and Sweden found that the average durability of a friendship is seven years. Although it is natural — and has always been — to change the people we trust over time, studies in the US indicate that US-Americans tend to have fewer close friends than 25 years ago. In Great Britain, 13 percent say they do not have any. And in Germany, the increased mobility has changed traditional family ties, since every third person lives more than 100 kilometers away from their parents. The lack of family members and friends nearby, together with a living environment that did not enable her to leave the house and meet others, is also what made Ida Möller so lonely.
Anne Wagner, the nurse, came to visit Möller in her flat each morning throughout many months. Every day, the old woman told her a little more about her life: the children who lived far away and the old friends which she could not see anymore, because they were not able to leave their houses either. Despite the intimacy, Möller kept one thing private: the keys to her apartment. "Some people take long to build trust to the extent that they share their keys", knows Wagner. "Although they tell you a lot very quickly, this is their barrier." One morning, Möller did not open the door.
If she had had neighbors who knew her well, Ida Möller would probably have felt less lonely. Regardless of age, whether young families or widowed seniors, the place where people live is one of the foremost spaces to build new close relationships. The latter are the best insurance against isolation. Despite this evidence, half of the Germans living in rental flats do not know their neighbors, according to a study by the real estate company TAG in 2014. The reasons are diverse, but housing design plays a significant role. In some cases, such as Möller's, stairs and other elements that are not suitable for people with a disability deprive them of the possibility to leave their flat and meet neighbors. In other cases, the design of the house subconsciously discourages these interactions. This is so because the environment has an impact on our social behavior.
Buildings Shape Humans
In the world of business, this insight has already become a common sense. Facebook and Google are two prominent examples of enterprises that have reshaped their workspaces, because they believe in the effect of more open working environments to encourage spontaneous face-to-face interactions. However, the same approach has not yet found its way into the private sphere, where the conscious layout of houses and apartments can stimulate relation-building and avoid isolation among dwellers.
"Over the past years, we are slowly getting more attention for this issue", says Dr. Peter Richter, who is the founding father of architectural psychology in Germany, a discipline studying the impact of the built environment on psychological well-being and developing recommendations. Under the title "City of the future", Richter has published guidelines for socially encouraging buildings. According to him, each community of dwellers should not have more than 100 inhabitants, because above this size, maintaining contacts to neighbors becomes difficult. Facades should be diverse and covered with plants, and open staircases or ramps would enable vicinity, since they maximize the time that neighbors automatically spend together.
"I grew up in a cubical house with an open staircase and a halo", Richter remembers. "Whenever I left the flat, I already knew if someone else was on the way, and I could talk to my neighbors across the stairs without even seeing them." Nowadays, the retired professor lives in the tenth floor of a tower block. "It takes me thirty seconds with the elevator to go up. Even if I meet somebody, there is no time for a conversation." Importantly, building more openly does not mean to disregard each person's privacy. The balance between privacy and interaction is key to encourage people to be more social.
Forced to Interact
That morning, in the small town in Northern Germany, Anne Wagner kept knocking and calling Ida Möller's name without a response. She called her colleagues and asked if Möller had been fine the night before, and she consulted the management of the home care service. When the police finally opened the door to Möller's apartment, the old woman was dead, lying on the floor close to the bed. "Apparently, she had got up during the night and fell", Wagner recalls. "And there was no one to take care of her. Only me".
Anne Wagner and her husband Ulrich do not want to be alone when they retire. One afternoon in April, they are sitting in the winter garden of their house near Emden. The closest market is two kilometers away, and Mr. and Mrs. Wagner only have two neighbors. "We have lived here for thirty years, and it has been a good time, a perfect environment for the children and for us. But now our kids have moved out", says Ulrich Wagner. Behind him on the wall are the photos of their nieces who live in Dresden. Their son has moved to New Zealand. "Of course we have lots of social contacts around, though associations, friends and colleagues, but this will change soon. I will retire next year, and then we will be even lonelier here", tells Mr. Wagner.
Together with a befriended couple, the Wagners have decided to found a cohousing project. "We want to move to the town, if possible to a community where we have a small flat or house with direct contact to friends and cohousers", Ulrich Wagner says. "What concerns the architecture, we want to design it in a way that we use common rooms, like a kitchen, to have a direct social contact and to be forced to build relationships." At the moment, the Wagner and their friends are looking for potential companions. They have organized two events at the local evening school. About 100 interested people joined the last one.