Urban Planning and the Loneliness Epidemic

By Jeffrey Merz AICP; Senior Planner, G70

Source: Viewpoint Vancouver

Slow Check Out

Over the past few months while waiting in the checkout line at my neighborhood grocery store (a two block walk from my condo, by the way), my thoughts drift to the story of a chain store in the Netherlands. A few years back, a Dutch company realized that when making purchases, many mostly-elderly shoppers would linger, chit-chat and schmooze with the checker, while others steamed in the queue with their packages of stroopwafels and pickled herring. This being the Netherlands, rather than putting up signs saying “no disturbing the cashier” or “have payment ready and press on”, the company took a different approach.

After doing some research, it turns out the chatty Cathy’s (and Klaus’s) were lonely. Going to the grocery store was likely the only time during the day many folks actually came in contact with a live, 3-D, warm-blooded, person. So what did the grocery store do? Set up a “slow” checkout line, where folks can chat up checkers and the checkers ask them about their day, their doctor visit to look at their knee, their family, all the while smiling, making eye contact and scanning their items in a leisurely, interrupted pace. As vacuous and forced as the exercise sounds, the checkers develop relationships with certain shoppers and the shoppers feel engaged in the community, even in a fleeting, cursory way.

Source: The New York Times

Home Brew

My other social connection story is one of the ubiquitous cappuccino. Some years ago, I saw an advertisement on TV about a new machine that allows one to make cappuccinos, lattes and Americanos at home “just as good as the neighborhood café ” but “without ever having to leave your house!” I don’t know about you, but walking to my local coffee place in Waikiki, grabbing a seat out front at the sidewalk table, putting on my cool-guy reflective shades so I can check people out, and maybe running into a buddy for a catty gossip download, IS KIND OF THE POINT. The cappuccino is secondary. Sure, I grab a cup of joe on the go now and again for fuel during the work week, but implying going to the coffeehouse is some type of drudgery-hassle, and sitting at home with a machine will make for a better experience, is beyond me. To each his own.

Loneliness Epidemic

The first story above describes the effect of loneliness while the second story describes a possible contributing factor to loneliness. While society as a whole was trending towards a loneliness crisis, the pandemic rapidly accelerated this drift. Understood to be a best-practice during the pandemic, the push to reduce shared communal experiences, eliminate physical third spaces, minimize contact with humans we don’t know, and reduce all of life to transactional provision of end-products/commodities, is changing us and literally killing us.

The lack of social connection poses a significant risk for individual health and longevity. Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29% respectively. In addition, poor or insufficient social connection is associated with increased risk of disease, including a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Furthermore, it is associated with increased risk for anxiety, depression, and dementia. Source: Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation (hhs.gov)

Many of us get in our cars to attend to everything outside our home or get mailed deliveries of food, clothing, dog toys, my Lululemon yoga pants. We are marketed the seamless “convenience” of being able to attend to life while never having to deal with the hassle of leaving the house, and it’s not right.

“Friction and randomness is needed in our lives. Unmitigated seamlessness is unseemly”.

Aside from the detrimental impacts on the population at large, an increasing number of studies are now showing that children and teens, especially in the car-dependent suburbs, felt trapped, listless, untethered during the COVID lockdown, and not just due to remote-schooling. This may have long term impacts as children and teens become adults. Humans’ natural need to be around other humans and to interact, encounter them randomly on the street, and engage them informally to conduct quotidian business, is part of what makes us well, human. And while engagement overall is good for our societal and personal well-being, the type of engagement is also important.

Source: Trains.com

The Dreaded Talking to Strangers

This brings me to my final go-to story, about which my poor friends and family have to listen ad nauseum: my cross-country train trips. I love ‘em! -my own comfy private cabin, shower, pull down bed and three square meals a day with the continent passing by out my window. Dining on long distance trains involves one showing up at a designated seating time in the dining car and the porter seating you at the next available table resulting in “low risk randomness” people encounters. Being single, I am seated with three other strangers, every meal. So, for example on my trip through the Rockies on the California Zephyr, I shared one meal with a 40-ish black-studies professor from Harvard, a lesbian Jewish rabbi from Chicago, a white, retired wood figurine whittler from eastern Kentucky coal country and me, a gay dude from Honolulu – not necessarily folks I would have chosen to share a meal had I had a choice. The conversation and interactions during the dinner, while slightly challenging or halting at times, was fascinating and thoroughly enlightening. Respecting each other’s differences and values, was the foundation of the meal.

Thanks for Oversharing, Jeff. So What Does This Have to do with Planning?

In my new, favorite book Encounterism – the Neglected Joys of Being in Person the author opines among other things that when it comes to social engagement, “an encounter is so crucial because it offers the possibility to ‘sit with the discomfort of our differences until something new blooms out of them’. It’s how we learn to live with each other” and “Just being aware of difference and inequality doesn’t change anything, but it does make change more likely. It forces empathy”. And empathy is maybe what we need now to walk us back from our post-pandemic, distrustful, confrontational, societal precipice.

Third spaces are one vehicle to help get us there. Land use policies, zoning, and laws can be the impetus for creating and sustaining third spaces. Mixed uses, gentle infill density, sidewalk commerce, al fresco dining, pocket parks, bike paths, street closure events, and robust, maintained public facilities/institutions, can all “nudge” us to utilize these third spaces. These spaces can facilitate encounters for (ideally serendipitous and spontaneous) positive human interaction and allow us to be physically present in our communities, all to foster empathy, trust and cooperation.

Source: Greatlifepublishing.net


Most of us have our cadre of close friends and family that we value, engage with frequently, trust, and enjoy spending quality time with. Our time with them is precious and nourishing. But I am talking here about people we encounter outside our “core” group. These are organic encounters: rapping with a stranger about flea medicine while in the dog park, encountering a neighbor on her walk to the hairdresser, running into a buddy at the beach, chatting up a person washing their car in their front yard down the street . And yes these examples mostly, but not exclusively, can only happen on foot. Random encounters just don’t occur when one’s only encounters outside the home are via a car. I found a quote about the lack of spontaneity from a young mother living in the suburbs of car-centric Texas:

On a local level, I sometimes think about all the trips to local businesses I don’t make because I can’t access them on foot with a stroller; all of the encounters with friends that don’t happen because car-centric planning makes the organic “walk-over” or “pop by” impossible. How much of our loneliness epidemic could be credited to the fact that most of us can’t get errands done in our neighborhoods on foot and see other people face to face? Source: Counting the Costs (strongtowns.org).

So, as we pivot to seek out more human interaction, the quality and type of interactions with people is also important. “Bonding social capital”- common-interest third spaces, are important to our well-being such as faith centers, children’s school events, team sport leagues, book clubs, volunteer organizations, community gardens, and shared identity groups’ events. But just as important, if not more so, are “bridging social capital” -third spaces like coffee houses, charity walks, the beach, dog parks, libraries, farmer’s markets, even peaceful demonstrations.

So, let’s keep and nourish our familial, friendship networks we have maintained over the years and let’s make a conscious effort to occasionally show up in person in society at events and venues (or trains) to encounter people we don’t know. And let’s ensure our land use laws and policies make social capital possible. It’s good for each of us, and it’s good for our communities.


Conversations with Strangers on a Cross-Country Train Ride ‹ Literary Hub (lithub.com)

Can Urban Design Truly Impact Loneliness? | Planetizen News

Book Review: ‘Encounterism,’ by Andy Field - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Why have we stopped talking to strangers? | Life and style | The Guardian

Coronavirus: Sorry, but Working From Home is Overrated - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Why Public Space Matters - Setha Low - Oxford University Press (oup.com)

How to Design a City That Fights Loneliness - Bloomberg

How Can Urban Planning Address the ‘Loneliness Epidemic’? | Planetizen Features

Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation (hhs.gov)

Our Third Spaces are Disappearing, and Communities are Evolving | ILLUMINATION (medium.com)

How Social Isolation Is Killing Us - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

No Purchase Necessary (strongtowns.org)

What We Miss When We Stop Talking to Strangers - Bloomberg

Megan Oliver, AICP, Gives Planners the Key to Happy Spaces (planning.org)

New Book Argues Weak US Social Institutions Make 'Fragile Neighborhoods' - Bloomberg

The views discussed in this article are those of the contributing author and do not reflect those of the APA Hawai‘i Chapter.