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How can we build loneliness out of London?

The capital is a lonely place for many young people. Developers and local government must introduce new solutions to prioritise and tackle loneliness in our city.

London is a lonely city but loneliness is felt even more acutely by young Londoners. Over three quarters of Brits between the ages of 18-24 experience loneliness to some degree and a quarter of them admit to feeling lonely often.

Loneliness can be caused by many things, but could housing play a role? Young Londoners, for example, are more likely to be living in privately rented homes. Short tenancies and changing rent levels can mean that young Londoners don’t stay in one place for long. This may impact their ability – and inclination – to develop connections with their neighbours and their surroundings, and could add to a feeling of loneliness and isolation.

While London is full of places to meet and socialise, from cafes to yoga classes, access to these spaces often comes at a cost. These social spaces can easily become out-of-bounds for young people, especially those on low incomes. At the same time, the number of free spaces have been declining. Since 2012 at least £22 million has been cut from youth service budgets, which includes funding for youth centre facilities. This might result in young Londoners not being able to develop friendships with other young people in their area and prevent them from feeling like they are part of a community.

Loneliness can be caused by many things, but a new generation of citymakers are considering the impact that buildings and public realm design could have on people’s experiences. At this year’s London Conference, a group of leading architects, developers and borough leaders discussed what their industry could do to help address London’s loneliness epidemic

What solutions can we put in place to help tackle loneliness in our city?

1) Ensure young people are around the table

Iona Lawrence, Consultant for The Cares Family and co-founder of the Jo Cox Foundation, suggested that many people who are lonely are more likely to be:

“Young, single, LGBT, black and with poor English language skillsIf we look at the way in which spaces are designed and the community participation processes in that designing process, so often you don’t have those people around the table.”

Too often, the personal views, objections and knowledge of young people are ignored in the design process. Victoria Lawson, Executive Director of Environment, Culture and Customer Services, at the London Borough of Hounslow argued that local government is uniquely positioned to tackle loneliness as councils can approach people on a neighbourhood level. This, she argued, is where residents are most likely to have a personal connection and is where councils can ensure that spaces are designed for flexible use, such as community social clubs, yoga classes or any other activity that brings people together.

2. Give local young people a voice

In many cases, young people want to engage with their community but do not have access to opportunities to get involved. Camden Council addressed this by starting a Citizens Assembly with the purpose of bringing young residents and others together to develop solutions to issues in the borough. In 2019, the Assembly discussed the climate emergency that had been announced in Camden, as well as changes that could be made to the neighbourhood to boost social interactions, such as creating more green spaces on residential streets and retaining public spaces.

3. Consider how young people use space

Developers are also taking note when designing new developments, incorporating spaces for people to meet each other and build relationships. Some are introducing simple solutions such as ensuring a new block of flats has shared facilities. A communal laundrette, for example, can provide an alternative to staying at home.

This kind of awareness can benefit both the people who create the places as well as residents, as Martyn Evans, Creative Director, U+I pointed out:

“There is a gigantic responsibility to make those places good for the people that live and work in them. It’s not just a social responsibility… People will ‘shop’ where they are most supported – its good business to care about what you build.”

Some developers have held training sessions for people aged between 14-20 to not only share their experiences of living in areas undergoing development, but also provide design training, so they are able to see how their ideas can be incorporated into a space. This provides the opportunity to develop spaces that are multipurpose, low-cost and specific to the young people living in a particular area.

4. Continue to invest in tackling loneliness

The Mayor of London has also contributed to tackling this issue by providing over £3 million in investment for combating loneliness. Some of this funding will be used to support young people who are leaving care, as well as the introduction of a policy test that assesses the impact of this funding and decisions on loneliness in London.

It is clear that there is no “one size fits all” approach to make Londoners feel less alone. But the next London Mayor, commercial housebuilders and local government must put combating loneliness – especially among young people – high on their list of their priorities.

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Denean Rowe is Senior Development Officer at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter.