Though we now enjoy more means to stay connected than ever before, loneliness persists as a threat to our well-being. Over the past few decades, growing attention from clinical researchers has shed light on the physical and psychological consequences of loneliness: Heart disease, strokes, dementia, depression and a host of other ill effects have been shown to spike among socially isolated individuals. Last year the United Kingdom announced the first ever government loneliness strategy, escalating discussions of the problem to a national level.
As we shape the built environment, we must evaluate our own role in the relationship between design and human connectivity: How can we better inform our designs to combat loneliness? How do we create spaces that feel accessible on an individual level, that encourage personal connections?
Today, green design is considered a given. Optimizing energy efficiency and minimizing our carbon footprint are near-universal priorities in contemporary architecture. Just as we prioritize environmental sustainability, should we not also consider how we design for human sustainability? A building’s longevity depends as much on the comfort and happiness of its human users as it does its HVAC system. Curbing loneliness is more than a passing consideration – It is a critical component of a larger discussion on designing enduring, inclusive spaces. Loneliness is a matter of human health.
When a building’s users feel that space adapts to their terms, as opposed to the inverse, they are more likely to linger, to feel at ease and to connect with their peers. Architecture succeeds when it rises to meet individual needs, interests, and inclinations – all factors that are highly dependent on local context. As such, we begin our designs with conversations: We seek out neighborhood locals and future building users to gain personal insights on how to serve local climatic, cultural and practical conditions.
From this base of personal insight, we must design a framework that accommodates individual preferences. In concrete terms, this means urban plans with greater variation in scale, design motifs, and typology. Rather than prescribing the means of interaction, our designs must allow users to take the lead in gravitating toward spaces that speak to them.
The value of undefined, claimable space is often overlooked. Our floor plan of the University of Cincinnati's Carl H. Lindner College of Business, intended as a hub for campus social life, is 40 percent undefined shared space by area. Committing nearly half the building to open, claimable space came from these personal conversations with building users – We adjusted our approach to reflect a strong need for finding individual open space in which to socialize and connect. Designing for variation means finding identity in architecture; enabling individuals to project themselves onto the built environment.
Shaping architecture to curb loneliness requires answering the why and how of human behavior. As we develop our designs, we consider why: Why do people gravitate to certain spaces? Why are certain spaces used or neglected in the way that they are? Understanding architecture as a product of human behavior, rather than the determinant, drives us to seek personal perspectives to inform our designs. Once our designs are completed, we must address 'the how': How do people move, act, and interact in the spaces we design? How have we met, or how could we improve, our ambition to create inviting social spaces?
By revisiting our designs, we create a knowledge base of architectural cause and effect, gathering qualitative and quantitative data to guide our practice in the future. Architecture should emerge as a personal gesture, rather than a prescription: By developing a broader perspective on the human element of design, we are better able to explore how architecture can help support the health of our planet, our peers and our communities.