71 | Loneliness & the city of the future

April 15, 2020

Ah, look at all the lonely people. At a buzzing party with nobody to talk to.

Or in an unfamiliar city full of unfamiliar faces. Maybe staring at a bright screen, watching a romcom at 2 AM. We all occasionally feel lonely. Even though it is a common phenomenon, loneliness can be one of the most unhealthy things we experience. It makes you age faster, Alzheimer’s advance quicker, cancer more destructive and it weakens your immune system. Being lonely can be as unhealthy as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

text by Jorn Rigter and Susanna Osinga | layout by Susanna Osinga


Chronic loneliness is a growing world problem. For example, in the Netherlands, forty-three percent of the population is said to be lonely. In Japan, more than half a million people haven’t communicated with anybody at all in at least six months. No one is immune to loneliness. Even if you have heaps of money, fame, striking beauty, the smoothest social skills and a loving spouse, you can still feel lonely. Loneliness does not depend on the amount of friends you have. It depends solely on your perception of your relationships, on whether you feel connected to people around you.

We care about our social needs because millions of years ago, we roamed the earth in groups. In those times, being together meant survival, being alone meant death. Our brains developed to become better at recognising what other people were thinking and feeling. Social dependency became part of our biology. It protected people from being excluded from the tribe, starving in a harsh winter or being eaten by a pack of wolves. These liaisons that kept people connected worked wonderfully for most of mankind’s past up until we began building a new world for ourselves. Cities started thriving and in those cities people discovered it was harder to find meaningful connections.

“Being lonely can be as unhealthy as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.”

Nowadays, around fifty-five percent of the world’s population lives in a city and this number will probably rise to sixty-eight percent over the coming decades. Could reimagining cities be the way to combat loneliness?


It might; we spoke with Douwe Osinga who works at Sidewalk Labs, a company based in New York that is building the city of the future. At the moment, Sidewalk Labs is designing a district in eastern Toronto, Canada. The goal is to take urban growth into account and create a vibrant city that improves the quality of life of its residents. Sidewalk Labs tries to accomplish this using the latest technologies. One of the things that Douwe is working on is a computer model that simulates where parks should be placed.

“It doesn’t matter how many parks a city has, it matters if they are close to most people’s homes, it matters if people actually go to the park. Simulations can calculate the best spot to place a park, so that a lot of people drive by it on their way to work.” These simulations can also be used to calculate so-called Origin-Destination pairs: virtual people in their virtual city. They calculate which routes these people take to go from point A to point B to determine the vibrant and less vibrant spots in the city.

However, vibrancy alone won’t make people feel connected. “If you don’t encounter the same people often enough, you will never build relationships with them,” says Douwe. These Origin-Destination pairs can simulate how often you run into the same people. This could help reduce the feeling of being alone. “The chance of getting to know neighbours and colleagues becomes significantly higher when you bump into them in the elevator, at the park, in the grocery store or in the local bar,” Douwe says. The girl with the tight curls you smile at each day when you go to work might become your friend if you also happen to go to the same gym on Saturdays.

“Social activities happen outside.”

Sidewalk Labs is also using other means to reduce the loneliness of residents of future Toronto. They are creating dynamic curbs which allow, together with self driving vehicles, the streets to be changed depending on what is needed that day. On Wednesday there could be a regular curb, on Thursday a lively market and on Friday a festival and a square filled with sweaty people with awful dance moves. “Social activities happen outside. We want to stimulate community.”  They are also building raincoats for building facades, which allow people to go outside even in extreme weather.

Another thing that could connect residents are studios with a shared kitchen. These studios have a clear goal; more interaction through shared living spaces. The spaces are also an example of Sidewalk Lab’s effort to keep the city affordable. They want to give as many people as possible, in different age categories and with different cultural backgrounds, the possibility to be connected.


Industrial design plays a significant role in Sidewalk Labs’ city of the future and their undertaking to make it more connected. Sidewalk Labs works with the Montrealbased design studio Daily Tous Les Jours, among others. Daily Tous Les Jours creates playful designs meant to get strangers talking. Their creations range from swings that make music to an installation that transforms messages whispered to trees into light and sound patterns that travel along arches as you walk beneath them. These designs also try to create converation and connection.

The New-York based team also has its own computational designers. These are designers that work with CAD programs like Rhino and its scripting language to create prototypes of designs. They can then use their computer models to evaluate these prototypes on certain parameters.

“This project is not about the city of the future, it’s about the future of cities.”

The beauty of this is the possibility to set parameters based on goals of the project and evaluate the prototypes based on those parameters. This approach – designing with the help of computer models – is promising in city planning. Another advantage is that the models can iterate quickly and are based on real-life data, resulting in a data-driven design.


So far we have been talking about the first world city of the future, but it is also important to discuss the third world. In the coming thirty years, there will be three billion people moving into cities in developing countries. “This project is not about the city of the future, it’s about the future of cities,” declares Douwe. While in the West we are dealing with aging of the population, mobility, loneliness and keeping cities affordable, cities in developing countries generally face different problems – like climate change and a growing population.

These varying problems require different solutions. The computer models of companies like Sidewalk Labs could provide guidance in finding the right answers. Because they build a model of the city that takes its different aspects into account – a model that uses generative design – it will be possible to find different solutions to diverse issues. Not only specific Western problems.


Even in the city of the future, built perfectly to create a close-knit community, loneliness will still exist. It is important to realise that it is a normal, universally experienced feeling. If people want to feel less lonely one thing is important: self-examining your perceptions and your behaviour. You can examine what you focus your attention on. Studies found that lonely people tend to focus more on social signals. On the other hand, their brain gets worse at interpreting these signals correctly.

“Even in the city of the future, built perfectly to create a close-knit community, loneliness will still exist.”

The part of your brain that recognizes faces starts to perceive neutral faces as hateful. Did that conversation with your colleague at the coffee machine really go badly or was she just tired? In these situations, examining your own behaviour is important. Could it be that you misinterpreted a social cue? Are you spending a lot of mental energy on examining how that conversation at the coffee machine went? Try not to beat yourself up too much.


Designing cities is a complex process and finding the right answers to the different problems cities face requires creative thinking and engineering. However, there is one thing all cities have in common: they are all inhabited by people. And even though the main problems to tackle will be different, the connection to your neighbour, the other parents in the park or the girl with the tight curls you smile at each day when you go to work, will be important no matter where you are.

LONELINESS & THE CITY OF THE FUTURE  | COVERSTORY | turn the page | FEBRUARY 2020 | bubble wrap

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