By Martha Grekos, Director (Barrister) at Martha Grekos Legal Consultancy Limited
A few months into the Covid-19 pandemic, many people started to talk about another pandemic – the “loneliness pandemic”. The NHS and Red Cross were advising on how to cope with the isolation thrust upon us by the global health crisis and its accompanying lockdown. Even before the pandemic, there were various reports which claimed that loneliness had reached dangerous and even life-threatening epidemic levels, and in October 2018 the Government launched its first ever loneliness strategy ‘A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness’.
Loneliness is not a disease; it is partly produced by the way we organise the world. National and many local planning policies seek to ensure that developments create healthy and safe communities. Many of the recent call to action publications by a variety of respected organisations, charities and commissions focus on a wide range of measures to improve loneliness and to reduce social isolation. However, not as much has been written in these documents about how the built environment can contribute to tackling its causes.
To address this we need to seriously rethink how we approach our public spaces, housing arrangements and communities. As place makers we can help to create places that encourage social connection and to create spaces that people want to use and are able to use that are safe and secure and that are accessible to all e.g. communal spaces for interaction; amenities and facilities to be in walking and cycling distance in our neighbourhoods and the routes to these places are safe, legible and encourage more people to use them.
Interventions and policy approaches should focus not just on responding to and mitigating social isolation, but on understanding the wider social context which creates social isolation in the first place and seeking preventive approaches for those most at risk. One cannot disentangle the economics of housing from the social connections you may seek to create through it. Tackling loneliness is linked to reducing ethnic and income segregation. Tackling loneliness has to be made an explicit priority in the planning system, nationally and locally. Examples could include providing better conditions for private renters as well as more integrated and better designed social housing.
Although not always tackling social isolation and loneliness explicitly, the work of community based projects plays an important role in supporting people of all ages to become ‘better connected’ with each other, a fundamental principle of asset-based working. The last few months have also given us many inspiring moments of social connection, even at a time of physical distancing. The Covid-19 crisis has brought communities together and shown our capacity to reach out across social and generational divides. From volunteering, fund-raising, mutual aid groups to young people sending letters and poems to older care home residents, we seem to have realised what is really important to us: connection and belonging. Planning policy can help foster such social bonds because it can help build that social resilience. We need cultural participation (as producers as well as consumers), work environments for all of us to thrive (and of course economic policy to support those returning to work), and more governance and infrastructure that is closer to communities to build stronger neighbourhoods.
We also need to question our dependency on certain forms of relationship – the couple and the nuclear family – as units of social organisation. Intergenerational living is increasingly high on the agenda. We could have retirement villages acting as hubs for the whole community, and even properties designed for multi-generational living which have interconnected gardens between properties. The “household” has taken on particularly rigid meanings this year, too, as we have been forced to spend practically all of our time in our homes and been severely restricted from mixing with others. This has made all of us consider the realities of our living arrangements in new ways. Feminists have long pointed out that the burden of housework and childcare overwhelmingly falls on women – and lockdown has made these inequalities more stark. We could think more as to how we organise housing and communities in a way that uncouples caregiving
from essentialist ideas of family and distributes it across communities, along the lines of kinship models, so as to reclaim forms of collective and communal life. As a client of mine who has Mediterranean routes recently mentioned to me “children were brought up by the village” and I think that sums up the point well.
Whilst we cannot solve all the factors causing loneliness, place makers can be part of a range of measures that help. We all want more togetherness and less loneliness and I believe that planning policy has a key role to play here.