A Placemaking Journal

Connections, Community, and the Science of Loneliness

On my last trip to see my aging parents, I was struck again by the loneliness that comes from diminished connections. They are both inspiring people, and in their younger years were notably adept at making connections with and for others. And at helping people see the good in each other, in themselves, and in the communities they call home.

However, over time those connections are slowly dissolving. While there’s little to be done at this stage, this experience reaffirms the expediency of staying connected as long as we can to all the networks – internal and external – that make for wellness.

The process of saying “what if” does little good. However, I can’t help myself.

“What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?” – T.S. Eliot

French Quarter, New Orleans. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

What if there had been a cottage living option in my parents’ neighbourhood that was a short walk to their daily needs? To help us coax them out of their large family house a decade or two earlier? Before it wore them down?

French Quarter, New Orleans. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

What if our family home had been in a more walkable neighourhood, where they would have been prone to walk the easy thirty minutes a day that is proven to increase memory and decrease the risk of dementia?

The Waters, Pike Road, Alabama. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

These sorts of places are the ones rich in social networks, which – interestingly – build neural networks. Loneliness is as dangerous as smoking or obesity, and more dangerous than inactivity. Loneliness also increases blood pressure and sleep disorders (PLOS Medicine, 2010). John Cacioppo’s scientific book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, he concludes that a sense of isolation disrupts not only our thinking abilities and will power but also our immune systems.

It isn’t being alone that creates loneliness, but the feeling of being disconnected. According to Jacqueline Olds, author of The Lonely American, we should be putting a greater policy focus on the “potentially devastating consequences of social isolation” (Globe and Mail, 2013).

Port Louis, Mauritius, Africa. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

Loneliness is a complicated issue that I’m not prepared to holistically address. It is more prevalent than depression, but we don’t understand it as well because we are generally not as willing to talk about it. We’ve talked extensively about the flip side, though, in walkable, connected places that make for healthy, livable places that tend to contribute to happiness.

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” ― Herman Melville

Toledo, Spain. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

My hometown of Huntsville, Alabama is joining hundreds of others in contemplating a form-based code to make it a better place to live for people of all ages, however at present it’s predominantly suburban in nature. My partner, Ben Brown, has made it clear that these are not easy problems to solve, and few places are well positioned to rebalance housing and provide livability.

Happily, the ones that are tackling these issues with land use reform are finding the results much less litigious than business as usual, according to insightful blog from Jonathan Zasloff.

Part of the issue is that form-based codes are relatively new – 31 years old – but 82% have been adopted since 2003. More at the Codes Study.

So case disputes will likely materialize over time, particularly in the places that:

  1. Didn’t take the time, money, and care to establish a community vision that could then be codified,
  2. Adopted an all-new replacement code without having adequate local support,
  3. Misapplied the Transect to the region, instead of the neighbourhood,
  4. Failed to capture local character within the code’s basic metrics, or made other number errors like wide streets near small setbacks,
  5. Required walkable private realms without the appropriate investment to retrofit the public realm,
  6. Upzoned properties to be out of the money based on faulty growth projections so stalled economic activity,
  7. Downzoned properties without adequate compensation,
  8. Overcomplicated administration requirements, ill-defined terms, or undefined appeals procedure,
  9. Created confusing text and metrics, or tried to regulate with photos instead of drawings,
  10. Created solutions out of line with the local problem set.

French Quarter, New Orleans. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

Some of the most successful form-based code adoptions have taken a very incremental approach to implementation, making the code optional but heavily incentivized, slowly transitioning downtowns and corridors into mandatory regulations as the locals requested rezoning.

The incremental approach to anything isn’t going to help people of my parents’ generation. But it definitely holds some promise for my kid’s generation, so that our elders’ hard lessons learned won’t be for nothing.

Île Saint-Louis, Paris. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

Here’s to the hard work of making the connections within and between our neighbourhoods that make for health and wellness in the long run.

Hazel Borys

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