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I have a small modern nation that has many ideals rooted in the idea of community. Notions of civic duty, caring for neighbors, mandatory community service, mandatory voting etc. are the moral bedrock of the society. The creators of this nation wanted their citizens to be aware of the people surrounding them. The last thing they wanted was to have a society that was incredibly lonely, and isolated from each other. Essentially a situation that we see slowly rising in modern times.

What type of city or town layout would help combat the atomization/loneliness of its people?

Some Notes:

  1. People need to be able to own their own house/property. Communal living spaces aren't an option.
  2. The nation is located on fairly mountainous terrain. Think Yukon territory or southwest Alaska.
  3. They are a modern society, and the country was built during modern times using modern equipment. Historical considerations for geography and survival aren't as important.
  4. Free mental health services already exist. But if your closest neighbor is a long walk or drive away, people are less likely to interact with broader society consistently. So, city/town planning certainly matters.
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    $\begingroup$ It's been a day for VTC:TSB. There is no single town design that guarantees a lack of loneliness. In some cases, loneliness is a choice (off-topic, see help center), in other cases, it's systemic (11-hour days as the only employee in a boiler room). Loneliness is caused by dozens if not hundreds of things - and most of them can't be fixed with a city design. How do you judge between "it has a lot of pubs!" and "roads are radial spokes" and "the law requires bedrooms to house at least four people"? I can't see how the answer to this Q could be independently true of all stories (aka, a rule) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 15, 2022 at 22:57
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH In this scenario I have already taken care of the non physical aspects for combatting loneliness and atomization. I.e. things like culture, expanded welfare, reasonable work hours etc. This is focusing on the layout in particular, as in one part of the system to address loneliness. As for layout, I do think there is a sliding scale of worst and better. For example, having everyone separated by large farmland, or requiring everyone to use a car to get anywhere would make it harder for people to socialize frequently would it not? $\endgroup$
    – FIRES_ICE
    Nov 16, 2022 at 0:50
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH As for judgement, the layout would be from a city design perspective if that makes sense. For example, radial spokes are more of a blueprint, and more of an appropriate answer since one is discussing macro level features of a city. Essentially how things are organized. Would that be a fair metric? $\endgroup$
    – FIRES_ICE
    Nov 16, 2022 at 0:55
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    $\begingroup$ I can't see that. I can't see a city design that would minimize lonliness regardless of any and all stories. The design appears to me to be dependent on narrative necessity, not worldbuilding rules. High tech? social media. Low tech? lots of dance halls. Pubs everywhere. How does that affect city design? It doesn't.... Lonliness is about talking and touching and you've rulled out communal houses. That means places to go, not where they're placed. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 16, 2022 at 1:17
  • $\begingroup$ And a word about judgement. What qualifies you to judge whether one city design is better than another at overcoming lonliness? That's another problem with this question. I don't see objective criteria for a best answer. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 16, 2022 at 1:18

5 Answers 5

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The root of loneliness is too many people.

Loneliness in modern society is often more about being surrounded by too many people, not a lack of enough people. When you surround yourself with more people than you can know, it forces you to practice social isolation skills. You learn to walk past strangers without stopping to talk to them because you don't have enough time to get to know everyone. You learn to ignore people who need help, because there are too many of them to help. You learn that you need to always be on guard because the people around you have as little reason to care about you as you have to care about them.

In small communities people don't develop these self-isolation skills because they have the time, resources, and consideration to spare. So, everyone gets to know each other. In smaller groups, introverts are less likely to retreat from society and extroverts are less likely to treat others as disposable. This makes meaningful and enduring relationships easier to foster which do far more to prevent loneliness than just being around people. It also discourages anti-social behaviors when you are forced to learn from a young age that you can't just wash your hands of a person and move on with your life. Less anti-social behavior means you have less to fear from strangers which means its safer to get to know people you don't already know.

Counter intuitively, fewer people all builds up to having more and healthier human relationships.

Compartmentalize your township

In modern society, you can't just force a town to stay small forever, but you can grow it in a way that it functions like a cluster of small towns instead of like a modern city.

Disclaimer: Some users have commented that the following style of urban planning would not be pleasant for them individually to live in. This is an unavoidable consequence of any urban planning scheme. Whenever you try to force a society to a be a certain way, no matter how good your intentions, the answer will always be someone's dystopia. The one and only goal here is to minimize loneliness; so, please don't leave any more comments about the other shortcomings of this solution. I am well aware of the tradeoffs that would have to be made to make this system work.

Smaller Schools

The problems of modern loneliness often starts in schools. It used to be common that schools were smaller with only 1 class per grade level, and more grade levels under the same roof. Those 20-30 kids in your Kindergarten class would be the same 20-30 kids in your 1st-8th grade classes ... so good friendships would last and rivals were forced into the same space long enough to be forced to reconcile. Now, many schools have gotten so large that 80-90% of your class mates change every year as they shuffle around 100s of students per grade level. This teaches children that friends and rivals are temporary and that it is best not to care about either.

Smaller Neighborhoods

Every person has a certain nexus: an area of thier home town that they consider thier neighborhood. In a city or apartment complex, this means you are often sharing your nexus with 100s or even 1000s of people, and all of these nexuses overlap so you run into people from outside of your nexus in your space all the time. When your nexus becomes so big that most people are strangers, it means that you must develop a general since of mistrust of everyone you meet inside of your nexus in order to protect yourself. This mistrust is isolating because it means you can not just stop to get to know the people around you.

Many suburban areas have actually solved this problem by dividing up townships into sub-divisions and cul-de-sacs. When you live in a cul-de-sac, you could live in a large town or city, but when you step out your front door, it is always going to be the same 5-10 families out mowing thier lawns, playing in the street, checking thier mail, etc. This breeds familiarity and trust making it feel safe enough to stop and get to know those around you. Sub-divisions help too because they become larger compartmentalized communities which are still small enough that you can form at least a familiarity with those you live around, even if you don't know them all. And more importantly, the physical barriers they form help shape the nexus of everyone around you reducing the number of strangers you have to interact with, even if there are the same number of people within any given distance from you.

If true suburban living is not an option for everyone, apartment complexes can be similarly arranged. Keep the complexes small and compartmentalized. Maybe 50-100 units per complex arranged around a central courtyard, and small communal spaces in every walkway so that each group of 6-10 units has somewhere "out-front" to hang out with the neighbors. That way even if you must live in a more physically crowded space, you still get the small town experience.

Decentralized commercial/industrial zones

Most cities naturally develop a central business district. A place where businesses like to centralize to synergize off of the attractive power of nearby businesses. At first it starts off simple. An office opens up, then a restaurant opens up next to it to feed the office workers lunch, then a gas station next to that to refuel the people going in to work, and it just snowballs after that until you have clusters of 100 story buildings packed so densely with commerce that people can only even access it through inconvenient public transit systems which are again over crowded, scary, and full of strangers which discourages trust and relationship building. Instead, if your town has many small commercial zones interspaced by your subdivisions, then no one place would become so built up as to attract the preference of 10s or 100s of thousands of consumers all flocking to the same relatively tiny part of town.

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The above diagram is only meant to be conceptual. In execution, the exact ratios of houses : cul-de-sacs : subdivisions : communities may be very different, and probably won't be layed out in perfectly symmetrical circles like this... unless you want them to be. A more natural layout may look something more like Reno Nevada.

Finally: elemenatate housing that encourages living alone

Everything so far has been about not pushing too many people together, that said, the most important factor in not feeling lonely is not being completely alone. The most lonely population of people today regardless of how thier town is laid out are those who live by themselves. Many people will choose to live alone when it is the most economically and socially viable choice they have, but then find themselves feeling trapped in that loneliness.

The best way to solve for this through city planning is by restricting the construction of housing that makes it economically preferable to live alone. If your building codes require that all housing units must have at least 2 bedrooms, then single people would be forced to pay the same higher housing costs as family households. This would create an economic incentive for people who would otherwise choose to live alone, to instead choose to live with a room mate. Even if you could afford your own 2-bedroom house, you'd have that extra bedroom just sitting there burning a hole in your pocket; so, if life started feeling lonely, it would become a non-issue to just try to rent that extra bedroom out.

Is this Science or Speculation?

There is a lot of conflicting information. Some studies show only a weak correlation between suburban living and loneliness, whereas others show a very strong correlation.

According to This article which reviewed the data from the May 2021 American Perspectives Survey report, people in suburbs are only 2% less lonely than people in denser urban areas. However, according to this World Economic Forum report, overcrowding increases loneliness by up to 38%.

The reason that these studies show such different results has to do with thier methodology. When you ask a person "are you a lonely person?", the problem becomes "compared to what?" A person who is lonely 5% of the time may give the exact same answer as someone who is lonely 25% of the time because that amount of loneliness is normalized to both of them. So, a 1-time survey like the first one used above can't really be trusted to report loneliness; only people's perception of what normal amounts of loneliness is. The second study above was based off of ecological momentary assessments which randomly asked people how they feel right now. This is different because it has nothing to do with if you think those feelings are normal, just if you are having them. This makes the methodologies in studies that show a strong correlation objectively better that those that show a weaker one.

The study of loneliness in unban planning is also confounded by the fact that extremely high population densities can actually reduce loneliness too. In California for example, population density has driven up the price of housing so much that single people can usually not afford to live alone. So, while Californians experience a lot of the same community isolation as other densely populated places, they have the 2nd lowest % of single person households in the US, well below average divorce rates, and tend to score well when it comes to combating loneliness. So, there is also evidence that says that "encouraging" people not to live alone is also effective.

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  • $\begingroup$ This urban scheme is perfect to apply in a montain region such the put by the OC and looks like super attrative to comunity interactions. $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2022 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ Looks very car centric with minimal/no concession to mass transit. Those are some isolating features. $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2022 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ @GaultDrakkor The whole point IS to isolate people into smaller units. Force them into "small town living" even if they they are part of a larger city. Such a goal would be directly undermined by a mass transit system which forces people to spend every day practicing social isolation skills as they surround themselves with strangers. Besides, it does not need a mass transit system. By spreading out the commercial zones, you put schools, shopping, workplaces, etc within walking distance for anyone who cant afford a car. Mass transit is only helpful where there is centralized commerce. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 15, 2022 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ @GaultDrakkor, apart from travel to highly-specialized facilities such as hospitals, there's no reason for the typical person to leave their "community" section on a regular basis. A properly-sized "community" is easily traveled on foot or bicycle, so there's no great need for mass transit. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Nov 15, 2022 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ In this scenario, we're supposed to be rooting for loneliness, right? Certainly not for the soulless, forced "community" of suburbia. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Nov 29, 2022 at 0:15
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Feelings of loneliness arise for a variety of reasons, only some of which are physical.

  • Crowding increases loneliness.
  • Greenspace decreases it.

Crowding forces you to develop a "thick skin." If you are in a crowd you cannot pay attention to the details of the lives of those around you, because it would quickly overwhelm you. So you build defenses against being intimate with people. And those tend to work on everybody.

Greenspace is relaxing. And it spreads people out. And people who are relaxed tend not to be so on guard. So you meet people. Say you take your dog for a walk and meet somebody else walking their dog. Or you go hiking and meet another hiker.

So arranging things such that people don't live in "rabbit warren" apartment blocks with many thousands of people all piled on each other is helpful. And lots of parks and walking paths and other similar things is also.

However, a key quote from that link is this:

In contrast, perceived social inclusivity – the feeling of being with people who share our values and make us feel welcome – was associated with a 21% decrease in loneliness. This suggests that it’s the quality of our social relationships that matter – rather than the amount of social contact we have.

That is, you will feel less lonely if you are in a community of people who share your values. Just a few examples of such communities (there are, of course, many more):

  • Religious groups
  • Community and volunteer groups such as The Shriners
  • Activity groups such as Scouting

So what you want is cultural structure that encourages activities based around common values or common ideas.

The type of group that works will depend on the local culture. For example, there is a group called Four H. The four H's are head, heart, hands, and health. It is primarily a rural-farm sort of thing. They do things like teaching children how to raise farm animals, or do bee keeping, or the basics of forestry. It won't work very well for people who live in typical mostly-pavement cities. But a modified version could certainly be arranged. After all, Beverly Hills California has a Boy Scout troop.

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A city layout that is walkable.

Suburbia is bad.

Post WWII there has been broad experiment with car centric designs. They are bad. Economically, environmentally, and physical health are some of the easier to show problems with car centric cities and towns.

Economically they are bad, many US communities are bankrupt because they can't afford maintenance of their roads, sewers and other infrastructure. Walkable regions bring in more tax revenue per area.

Commuting by car has much higher environmental impact then walking.

fast cars and pedestrians mixing mean people die. Some of cities have 1/3 the downtown as parking. Needing to drive to everywhere means people are at destinations or are in cars/trucks. Things leads to more smaller more fractured communities. The effort to be a part of any community is increased by the isolation of the car.

Walkable cities are historical norm.

Pre 1950 all cities were designed/evolved around people. People have changed and evolved cities over thousands of years. Therefor consider lessons of the past.

A city layout such that it is easy for the majority to walk/cycle where they need to go. Shopping, school, work all common destinations should be withing walking and or bicycling distance. Streets and driving still exist, its just that people are first. Walking cycling and or public transit need to be viable options for the major majority.

It can be demonstrated that people value walk ability via higher property values. Less driving more walking means more physical activity, generally a good thing for mental and physical health. Fewer people in isolating cars allows for more interactions.

Description of layout.

Grid like layouts with mixed commercial residential and compatible light industrial. Grid like layouts allow for easy routing of mass transit, people, cars etc. Streets should be designed for sub 25Km/h this keeps things safer, allows children to play on the streets.

A very common pattern is four to six story buildings; ground floor day-to-day commercial, second floor occasional commercial, and upper floors residential. This makes it so there are always people around and most times of the day keeping it more lively.

Conclusion

While walkability may not directly address isolation, It provides much more opportunity to interact with others in a less hostile, more affluent setting then car centric cities. At the very least they are a concrete direction to take cities that have measurable benefits.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you can't trust the people you are walking by, it is a much more hostile environment. Columbia MD, Pearl City HI, and Yonkers NY are the 3 safest cities in the US and have largely suburban style city planning. Baton Rouge LA, Detroit MI, and San Bernardino CA are much more walkable with thier grid pattern streets, and are the 3 most dangerous cities in the US. Walkability makes you an easier target of opportunity, and people who live in such places typically consider stopping to talk somewhere between rude and threatening. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 28, 2022 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ Also, environmental, economic, and historical factors are irrelevant to the question asked. I actually agree that grid layouts offer tons of advantages, many that can improve quality of life, but combating loneliness is not one of them. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 28, 2022 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ "Streets should be designed for sub 25Km/h this keeps things safer, allows children to play on the streets." <- this is why suburbs use curvy streets. It prevents speeding in places where children play. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 28, 2022 at 17:46
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Factory town

A small town that is dominated by a very large industrial plant is unlikely to have very many people badly isolated. The workforce is likely to have strong social connections. The actual layout could vary according to your needs; the factory or plant could be at the town outskirts (best), or by itself just down the main road. Note any fired employees will get lonely, as they'll lose a lot of their friends.

The other factor is having plenty of (well attended) churches; social connectivity and church attendance go hand in hand.

So: small town, churches in the middle, factory at one edge.

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Communal Areas

People own their properties. But the properties are built like apartment complexes or dormitories with communal areas and facilities. Bedrooms are separate. Kitchens and bathrooms are shared. There is a big dining table next to the kitchen to encourage everyone to eat together. There is a communal garden in the middle of the complex that everyone shares.

Everyone uses the same kitchen, fridge, bathtub and toilet. Everyone pitches in to clean. If you clog the toilets you have to unclog it yourself or everyone else will know, and you will be Stinky McPooPooFace for the rest of your life.

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  • $\begingroup$ Reminds me of that the Soviet Union tried something similar to this. It was called the Kommunalka. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Nov 15, 2022 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ Student accommodation does this, and let me tell you partner, the label of Stinky McPooPooFace and worse is by no means sufficient to make people clean up after themselves $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2022 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Fred: The end result is that there are 40 million Russians in this world living anywhere-but-not-in-Russia... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 16, 2022 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ "Everyone pitches in to clean" means that in practice nobody cleans. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 16, 2022 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ @catalogue_number The students don't plan to be there long term. Throw in a few parents with children and you might see a difference. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 16, 2022 at 8:56

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