Why is that some of the world's most bustling and densely-populated cities are often the loneliest? In "Community Architecture," hosts Jeremy and Judy explore this paradox and discover that metropolises around the world were rarely developed with the well being of its inhabitants in mind. Instead, they were mostly built to pack in as many residents as possible in order to grow into economic powerhouses. As a result, looming skyscrapers, a lack of public areas in which to congregate and connect, and a dearth of green spaces, have made our cities such lonely places. And, certainly, following our collective experience of lockdown in 2020, we know now how important connection is to our wellbeing.
Three young professionals in the field of community architecture -- an urban planner in Toronto, an urban architect in London, and an urban neuroscientist in Vancouver -- share their thoughts and ideas for designing healthier, more pro-social urban environments of the future.
I'm walking through Washington Square Park in New York City. It's a gray, late October day. It's drizzling a bit, but not enough to keep people away. In fact, the park is full of people, sitting on benches, chatting. Some are walking their dogs, others are pushing their kids in strollers. Most are wearing masks. As am I, which is probably why I sound muffled. The park is in the city's historical Greenwich Village. It's one of the few truly public places in the city where locals can meet and just chit chat. There was a mid 20th century psychologist named Abraham Maslow, who came up with something called the Hierarchy of Needs, based on the universal needs of society. If you study it, it's quickly obvious that the common theme was based on the fact that individuals are happiest when they can establish casual relationships with people they meet regularly within their day-to-day activities. I can see it at work in the park. I can see how much we humans crave interaction and belonging. This place reminds me of an old fashioned piazza. You know the ones you see in European cities. This is a real hub of activity. This is a place of social connections. We need more of these cities.
You're listening to Is Anybody Out There? a podcast about loneliness, brought to you by the Connectery. I'm Jeremy Warshaw.
And I'm Judy D'Mello. Today's episode, "Community Architecture," focuses on an almost oxymoronic truth that some of the world's most densely populated cities are often the loneliest.
Crazily enough, almost half of the global population -- that's about 3.5 billion of us -- live in cities. While much of this urban growth happens slowly, over hundreds of years, it happened with little consideration for the well being of his residents. Mostly it was all about just packing in as many people as possible in order to make these places economic powerhouses.
Jeremy, I think you and I can speak from some experience on this. I've lived in a few of the world's most bustling cities. Mumbai, Sydney, London, and now New York. And I do think that urban life can often challenge our need to be social animals, because there's little opportunity for social interactions or connecting to others. And here's another interesting fact: Finland for the fourth year in a row, ranked as the happiest country in the world in the latest UN World Happiness Report. And its capital, Helsinki, as the happiest city in the world. The reasons are many, including a great social support system. But the reason that really jumped out at me was that the Finns enjoy a close relationship with nature, which is obviously a key factor in leading a more contented and connected life. And you know what, most cities were simply not designed to offer that.
Yeah, my experience with living in New York for 35 years, is that life is determined primarily by one's career. So, work is always the priority, then family obligations in some me time. And if there's any time left to spare, well, maybe friendships and socializing can be squeezed in. And as we now know, when this is how we prioritize our life, the result is often that we feel isolated and lonely.
I am really happy to be speaking today with Yasmin Afshar, and urban planner in Toronto, Canada, whose work focuses on planning policy, urban design, and community engagement. Welcome to "Is Anybody Out There," Yasmin.
Yasmin Afshar 04:16
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
I invited you today because I'm really curious about your professional and maybe personal input on the role of urban design and addressing loneliness in cities around the world. Because we all know that living in cities can be a very isolating experience for many people. And that urban designers have enormous potential to address this issue. And I think now they are and people are becoming more and more aware of how to address the issue. So, could you give us your bird's eye view on the need to build urban infrastructure that supports good sociability like friendly streets and vibrant public spaces, which sounds like you're doing that Detroit project?
Yasmin Afshar 04:59
Yeah, for sure. It's all about creating spaces and places where people can connect and individuals can make casual connections with people they may not know, in their day to day lives. So I think that's the fundamental goal of addressing this in an urban environment. One of my former colleagues, Mark Massuto, he wrote an article on this. And he talks about what influences how people perceive their well being within a city. He references research in that article that says 50%, of this feeling of well being is based on a person's setpoint. So their baseline level of happiness. And then 40%, I think, is their intentional activity. So things like thoughts and routines and actions. And it's really only 10% that's related to their external circumstances. So their environment and what they own, where they live, things like that. And I thought that was really interesting, because as a planner, you always think I can change someone's life with the way that I am planning this community or creating this environment. And I think that we can, but it's not in that 10% related to the external circumstances, we focus so much on the external environment and the built environment. But I think what cities impact in us is that 40% that's related to our actions and our thoughts and our routine.
And what would that 40% consist of?
Yasmin Afshar 06:27
It's as simple as the bus stop I stand at every day, or where I get my coffee in the morning, or my experience taking out the trash in the morning. Or if I live in a condo, how I move through the condo, things like that.
That's also, I think, related to design and planning, right?
Yasmin Afshar 06:48
Yeah. And I think that that's where that 10% comes in. But I think what we ground ourselves in, or what we become more accustomed to, is the routine part of it. Your routine is really what influences your day to day. And so you'll find a comfort in that routine. And then things that shift that routine or change it are the things that really affect your well being. Which is why you see things like gentrification, things that bring change into your community. That's why change impacts communities so much, I think, because it affects that piece of routine. So when we focus too much on the built environment, we're taking away from the experience that someone actually has in that environment. And if we were to start maybe understanding the experience first and then moving to the physical, it would probably help us in terms of social cohesion.
So in terms of urban planning, what do you think the antidote to isolation is?
Yasmin Afshar 07:46
I honestly think it's something I said at the beginning. People are happy when they can establish casual relationships with people they meet regularly.
Yes, you're absolutely right. I mean, that's how Maslow founded his Hierarchy of Needs, which was basically a based on that how people interact with other people just during their day to day activities. It wasn't like you have to plan to go to meet somebody who just happened to meet someone walking your dog or pushing your kid in the stroller or something like that. That's when people are happiest. So, okay, I'm going to switch gears. So through the centuries, we've seen global cities and buildings being shaped as a direct response to public health crises. From better sewage systems to the modern street grid to broader, better ventilated avenues, and even to the height of door thresholds. These have all been design features that came about to help prevent further outbreaks of plagues and diseases. So what are your thoughts on how this pandemic will shape urban design?
Yasmin Afshar 08:51
I have a lot of thoughts on this because I don't think any current environment is perfect. In a city, you feel like there may not be enough space for you to safely get around and meet your daily needs. In a suburb, your activities might be so dispersed, but it leads to isolation and a more car centric way of living, which is -- auto centric, sorry, I should say way of living -- which is something we're trying to get away from in terms of climate change in the environment. And in terms of rural areas, you might have everything you need to sustain your local community but you're hearing things now like the lack of internet access in some places and how that's so important during the pandemic. And so I think it's interesting to think about because you kind of need a mix of the characteristics from all three of these types of environments to create the perfect condition for us to thrive in a post-pandemic city. Something that a lot of people are talking about these days, is this concept of a 15-minute neighborhood in which all of your needs can be met within 15 minutes from where you live. So you work and you live and you shop and you play within 15 minutes. So the mayor of Paris put this concept out as something that he wanted to achieve. But it doesn't currently exist there. But one example I can think of that came up recently on a webinar I was on is the Olympic Village in Vancouver. And the speaker was showing us around their neighborhood and saying that since the pandemic started, they didn't need to actually leave for anything. They had their bank, they had their gym, they had open spaces, they had access to nature, and water, and groceries and all of these things. And so I think now this concept of a 15-minute neighborhood will become a new thing that we're striving for as kind of this universal baseline.
You know, I'd never heard of these 15-minute neighborhoods. Had you?
No -- but great idea. So it's only a short walk, or a bike ride -- not a car ride -- that separates residents from most of the staples they need like office, schools, shopping, doctors, you know, gym, the park, whatever. So these neighborhoods become mini self sufficient communities.
But doesn't it become a tiny bit claustrophobic?
I thought so too. But you know, then I researched it and saw that these neighborhoods are mostly within big cities. So you're never completely limited to just that 15 minute radius. And they're cropping up in places like Portland, Vancouver, and others planned in Boulder and Detroit. These aren't giant cities, but they are generally car-dependent urban sprawls. So, I do think the concept offers a real antidote to isolated city life and loneliness. Because when people become less mobile, or transient, so that means they no longer have to spend hours commuting every day, then naturally, they'll end up spending more time and money locally, and interact more with their neighbors.
That's interesting, you know. Anyway, we'll go from urban planning to urban architecture, and speak with Imogen Webb, an architect who works in London.
Welcome Imogen to "Is Anybody Out There?"
Imogen Webb 12:19
Thanks. Good to be here.
I came across you on the internet because of your work with an architectural company called Make. So could you tell me a little bit about what you did there?
Imogen Webb 12:32
It was working at Make for about five years, I think it was. And something that I ended up working on a lot at Make was several different proposals for this kind of emerging sector, which is being referred to as co-living. Basically rooms or small studio style living unit in a large development that would each be rented out privately and then sharing various other spaces that relate to the ammenities you need for living. So, kitchen, dining, that sort of thing. But elevating those to a level that just wouldn't be possible within kind of a single unit dwelling. So if you're just in your own flat, or a shared flat with a couple of others, or something along those lines, you wouldn't be able to have, for most people, a very fancy professional level kitchen, for example. But this is something that by sharing, you can provide a better amenity. And then it went much beyond that as well, providing things like cinemas and games rooms and amazing reef terraces with barbecues and stuff like that. So yeah, that was quite exciting.
So did you do any research in this field?
Imogen Webb 13:50
I did carry out quite a lot of research, partly for my own purposes to support the projects I was working on and help come up with ideas and solutions. And it was also off the back of various conversations with colleagues I worked quite closely with on these co living projects. And it was various discussions that we've had about how could this all be pushed further? And how could these ideas work harder and do more for society. And that was what ultimately provided the springboard for the publication. And it's called Kinship in the City, published by the Future Spaces Foundation. It's about urban loneliness and the built environment.
Fantastic. So after you did all that research, why do you think it is that cities are such lonely places or have the ability to be such lonely places?
Imogen Webb 14:46
If so, uh, yeah, I've got quite an interesting personal perspective on this, I suppose, because I actually grew up in a very small village in the Midlands, for anyone who's not familiar with the UK--
I can tell by your accent, but tell us where you grew up.
Imogen Webb 15:03
Yeah, so I grew up between Coventry and Lamington. And the village was a few 100 people. And it was very much exactly what you imagined. But you know, there's many things that are really lovely about that, you know, I had sort of a small group of other children of my age growing up, and we could just walk to each other's houses and just open the door pretty much and go in. And it's easy for everyone who wants to you to get involved in community based activities. So I went from that to living in London. I came here initially for university, and I've been here ever since. I do think it's it really is a sort of size issue primarily because due to the density of the living. I've probably got more people living in five minutes of me than I had in my village growing up. And I think there's aspects of the whole, like, capitalist rat race type approach that a lot of people have who are living in big cities, and people have got their blinkers on, and they're just going about their own life, and they're busy and they're in a rush, they're going from A to B, and they're not taking the the more meandering route literally or metaphorically.
When you describe your co working places that you've worked on, how are they different from WeWork, for instance?
Imogen Webb 16:41
So, Uncommon, which is the company I work for now, I suppose, our approach, probably caters to potentially like a slightly more mature audience. And I think something that our founder Tania Adir has done is she has actually really considered well being and the well being of the inhabitants. And that's a really key thing for us. So having live plants within the buildings. And we also do things like using scents. So we have systems that circulate specific scents around our buildings, which kind of relates to the sorts of activities that are being carried out within certain areas. So like kind of lifting sort of energizing scents in the areas where people are like working and there's lots going on, and you want it to be kind of stimulated. And then kind of where we've got areas like we have kind of meditation rooms and areas for yoga classes and stuff like that. So that would have like slightly different approach, like a calming kind of thing. So I really like that touch because I wonder if it's because of having an owner who is a woman, because I've always been really interested in smell and how that affects our experience of space. And with all my previous clients who've always been men, this has never ever come up as a topic.
Well, if anyone knows a thing or two about how our senses are affected by our surroundings, it's our next guest. Robin Mazumder. He is a doctor of the philosophy of psychology, specializing in cognitive neuroscience. His area of expertise is studying how a person's brain reacts to the environment in which they live.
And it's a really fascinating branch of science. And I spoke with Robin the day after he successfully defended his doctoral thesis at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
Robin Mazumder 18:50
One of the characteristics of the modern city is the skyscraper. And some people considered it to be a way to address population density. Other people see it as a product of capitalism. But regardless of how you look at it, it's how you feel when you're surrounded by these massive structures in our cities. So there was a bit of a dystopian bent to my PhD. And then I was trying to see the future and examine and understand what it would be like if you can't see the sky anymore. And that's all you have in your peripheral vision. So to do that, we built virtual environments using unity, which is a video game software, and put people in VR headsets to examine these things. And they measured how their bodies responded using something called the galvanic skin response, which is basically your emotional sweat response. So that kind of gave us an insight into what's happening in the body and by proxy in the brain, because I see the two is connected, obviously.
So what did you find?
Robin Mazumder 19:46
The takeaway is that people find these environments not to be particularly pleasant. So what I'm really interested in is the chronic experience of it. So it's asking questions about how do all these subtle aspects, and not so subtle, like noise pollution and all sorts of other things that are associated with the city that can impact us negatively, how does that create a sense of, I guess, illness or state of un-wellness?
Yeah. It's so interesting. Because when you think of a city you think of, you know, millions of people and a cultural hub, the shops and restaurants and bars, and just life all around you. And they still are one of the loneliest places to be in. So what is it about cities that has led them to become very lonely places?
Robin Mazumder 20:35
It's interesting. Is it causation or correlation? I mean, in Canada, at least 80% of Canadians living will be considered to be urban centers. And globally, I think it's 40. And by 2040, it's 60. So that's just where people are living. Cities are a reflection of our cultural and societal state. And there can be really great things like you mentioned, the vibrant places with pop up coffee shops on streets and murals. But at the same time, I think it amplifies a lot of things that are not particularly well about our world now. And I think that we're living in a time of disconnection, which is paradoxical because everyone's connected to their phones. It's funny, I was out for lunch with a friend of mine the other day, who's a psychotherapist, and I was talking about, you know, my thesis and this exact issue of cities and wellbeing. And he's like, well look around you. He's like, we're having a conversation here. And I'm not making eye contact with anybody. Everyone's staring at the ground. It's inhuman. We're designed for connection. People want to connect, they just don't know how. And I think that's where urban design comes in, and little injections of joy. You know, we ran a study a few years ago and published this in the journal cities of health and it was done in collaboration with the City of Vancouver, the Happy City Consultancy. And basically what we did was we took people on a tour, a walking tour of His area of expertise is studying how a person's brain reacts to the environment in which they live. in downtown Vancouver to see the effect that simple interventions like paint, like a rainbow crosswalk, or a back alley with some shrubery you know, you know, a little free library and we compare them between other sites that were just kind of just basic. We also compare it to a very highly policed and surveilled what people would have thought would be considered a park, but it wasn't. And we compare that to a community garden. And what we found was that these really simple, affordable, relatively affordable, when we're talking about cities, interventions, we found that there was associations between these interventions and trust in social connection, and places really wanted to meet friends. And what I thought was really fascinating, and something that I've, you know, as someone who's traveled to a lot of cities and is interested in cities, when I see a piece of public art, and I see someone else looking at it, I asked them what they think about it, and it's an opportunity for a conversation. And that's how we can get people connecting again. So are you familiar with the super blocks in Barcelona? (Judy: Yeah.) You know, to me, I'm like, that's just a beautiful, quick way to show how we can create connection with space that is otherwise dedicated to cars and storing cars. I mean, I think public space is essential that I think healthy cities are cities that have not just adequate, but an abundance, amount of green space. When we started our conversation, I said, I was really happy to be back in Victoria. People just seem to be happy here. The green space is just, it's so important for so many reasons. You've got from the psychological perspective, the dominant theories suggest that there's restorative benefits under psychological states will help to restore your attention or helps restore your stress. In my experience, just being in green space, for the most part, allows me to connect with myself. And I think one of the things that we need to think about is people aren't connecting with each other, maybe because they're not able to connect with themselves. This topic of how our cities contribute to stress, because when people are in a stressed state, they literally dissociate and on the far end of that spectrum is trauma. And trauma causes a disconnection from ourselves. We leave our bodies and so if people aren't aware of how they're feeling themselves, how can you expect them to empathize with the feelings of other people?
So I lived in an apartment building in New York for many years. And I was on the sixth floor with six other apartments on my floor. And I knew the faces who lived in those apartments and we would say hello and goodbye and exchange pleasantries in the elevator ride. But beyond that, I knew nothing about anybody. I didn't know what they did for a living and where they came from, what their life story was. Nothing. And they probably didn't know anything about me either. So what would you do if you were commissioned by an architect to help them build the perfect high rise or mid rise building? What features would you implement in that to make it a better, more pro social place to live?
Robin Mazumder 24:57
Something that I loved when I was in Europe was the courtyard. Yeah, In the center of the building. I love that. You know, I saw it when I was in Budapest, I saw when I was in Berlin, I saw it in London, in Italy. It was just this kind of defining feature of these high density mid rise apartments. And I think in my experience, social connection is contagious. So if you have a positive experience with a stranger...it happened to me the other day. Someone looked, smiled at me and said, "Hey, I liked your shoes." And I was like, "Oh, thanks." And then, you know, I kind of carried that with me. And then I went somewhere else. I said, "Hello." And, you know, gave him a compliment. It was just really uplifting. And it's amazing how the energetics of that can shift. And so when you look at these apartment buildings, they always do that, and I should say that the Happy City Consultancy, I'm pretty sure last year or the year before, actually released a report on how to design multiple family dwellings or apartment housing. So check them out, because I think they've actually got a strategy for that.
Well, this has been such a great conversation. I loved how free flowing it was and that this topic of urban planning, and loneliness, social connection, and creating more pro social environments is certainly a growing field out there. And people are becoming more aware of it. So I hope you I hope you go on to do really great things.
Robin Mazumder 26:19
Thank you. Can I leave you with one thought for listeners too? Yeah, I think what the reason that I focus so much on the environment is that I don't want people to place the burden on themselves for something that's a societal challenge. And it's something that I saw -- I almost get emotional talking about -- like, I mean, it's something I saw in the work that I did with, as an occupational therapist. People were unbelievably lonely, regardless of the mental health diagnosis that they had. They were lonely and they'd internalize that. They thought there was something wrong with them. And it broke my heart. So I just think if people feel lonely, just like social skills, training and being more outgoing, those are obviously important things. But taking a perspective on this as an environmental issue, I think for me, personally, it connects with my value system. And it's that everyone wants to connect, sometimes they just don't have the opportunities. And so I hope, I hope cities and policymakers, if anyone's listening to this, using that lens to do the work that you do, I think is essential if you really want to get at some of the core issues that are plaguing our society today.
You know, what Robin said really made me realize that the future of a healthy society rests not simply on shared values, but on shared spaces. The libraries, childcare centers, churches and parks. Because these are the places where vital social connections are formed.
Did I tell you I'm moving to Finland?
Well, only after we finished our final episode, which airs next week. In this episode, we gave some of our guests and several listeners superhuman powers for a day and ask them to come up with big bold solutions -- not worry about how practical -- but really stunning solutions for less lonely future. So please join us and listen to some really inspiring ideas. And besides this is our last episode, Is Anybody Out There? was created and written by Judy D'Mello and Jeremy Warshaw.
This episode was produced and edited by Christian Sawyer. Music by Seaplane Armada.
If you're enjoying this podcast, and we hope you are, please rate us on Apple podcasts.
And do subscribe wherever you download your podcasts.
For more information about what you heard today, please visit theconnectory.com Let's stay connected.
Yasmin Afshar is an urban planner and writer with a passion for creating connected communities through design, process, and storytelling. Her planning work explores the interplay between public policy, community design and engagement through storytelling on projects across North America. Her areas of focus include equitable revitalization and community-centered processes, and she has written and spoken about loneliness in city-building for a couple of years now. She was recently accepted into a Masters of Fine Arts program with the University of King’s College and Dalhousie to further explore the topic of loneliness through her writing.
Imogen Webb is a qualified architect who lives and works in London, UK. She trained at The Bartlett (UCL), and the University of Westminster, and has worked at several award-winning architecture practices, including Make Ltd. In recent years, Imogen has led the design of several pioneering co-living schemes, which seek to optimize shared space in the buildings we occupy. This residential model looks to provide a higher quality offering for residents than can be found in more traditional, self-enclosed housing units. Beyond offering a better living environment to occupants, these developments are designed to bring people together. Co-living developments afford their residents far greater opportunity for socializing and building community than they could expect from living in a typical block of flats.
Inspired by her work in the co-living sector, Imogen carried out research into the serious societal problem of loneliness, looking particularly at how this issue might be addressed (in part) by the built environment. Her research informed the latest report from the Future Spaces Foundation, titled 'Kinship in the City: Urban Loneliness and the Built Environment'.
Imogen has spent the last 1.5 years working in-house for a co-working developer and operator, and is now moving into the public sector, where she hopes her expertise can benefit a wider audience - in particular the marginalized communities who are most affected by loneliness.
Robin Mazumder is an award winning urban neuroscientist with a keen interest in understanding how living in cities impacts well-being. His PhD research, funded by the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, used wearable technology in real and immersive virtual reality settings to examine psychological and physiological responses to the urban built environment. His research interests are informed by his clinical experience working as mental health occupational therapist in the urban cores of Canadian cities. Working with individuals with mental illnesses in urban environments provoked curiosity into how different settings, from busy streets to parks, inhibited or supported wellbeing. In addition to his research, Robin is an outspoken advocate for urban design that supports wellbeing, and has given more than 30 keynotes internationally on the topic. He is also passionate about science communication and has been interviewed by and written for major media publications, including the BBC, CBC, Huffington Post and Wired Magazine.