This is a guest post by Holly Walker, Deputy Director and WSP Fellow at The Helen Clark Foundation, an independent public policy think tank based at AUT. Holly is the author of two major reports about loneliness in Aotearoa following Covid-19..

2020 was a lonely year for a lot of people. For some, it was almost unbearable.

In this post, I’ll share some of the findings and insights from a report I wrote recently, Still Alone Together: How loneliness changed in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2020 and what it means for public policy, with a particular focus on its implications for urban design and the built environment. Better design of urban places can reduce loneliness.

First though, I want to ground what I’m going to say with the voices of people who lived through particularly acute loneliness last year, and who continue to live with it. Thanks to the members of my online community who generously shared these thoughts with me:

“My biggest feelings of ‘loneliness’ come from not having anyone close to me that intimately knows me and understands me. I don’t necessarily need a lot of interaction or multiple social get togethers; for me it’s about the quality of the connections I’m able to have.”

“[During lockdown,] when the kids would go to their dads, I’d be by myself and not have physical touch from another human for up to a week at a time. It almost killed me.”

“[Lockdown] was not so different from my usual daily experience – working from home due to my impairment and relatively socially excluded – except suddenly everybody was frequently checking in with how I was doing, concerned about wellbeing and connectedness. However, the moment we came out of lockdown, those calls stopped. Everybody appeared to be going back to their ‘new normal,’ but my isolation felt that much more magnified.”

Why loneliness matters

We all know what it’s like to feel lonely. We wouldn’t be human if we hadn’t at some point experienced the painful feeling of an unmet need for connection, the almost physical longing for other people.

As a species, we evolved to rely on other humans for survival. We work together in groups to ensure everyone has adequate food, shelter and warmth, and that young, old, and vulnerable community members are cared for. In evolutionary terms, ‘separation from the pack’ was literally life-threatening, and for this reason we respond to perceived isolation with the same physiological threat response that we use when confronted with real danger: fight, flight, or freeze.

While this response can help us manage immediate danger, it’s not intended to be maintained for long periods due to the stress it places on our bodies. Spending weeks, months, or years in this state of ‘hypervigilance for social threat’ can have considerable impact on our health and wellbeing, and can even shorten life expectancy.

For this reason, loneliness was already a significant public health and policy challenge even before the Covid-19 pandemic – and it is an even more important challenge now.

Still alone together. Source: The Helen Clark Foundation.

The impact of Covid-19 on loneliness in Aotearoa

In our report, we used Stats NZ’s wellbeing data to look at how levels of self-reported loneliness changed across the total population, and for specific groups, during 2020. At the population level, there was a noticeable increase in loneliness during 2020, and interestingly even more so later in the year after the Level 3 and 4 lockdowns were over. This may be because during the lockdown itself, many people made a conscious effort to check in on each other and stay connected in non-physical ways. Afterwards, when life went back to ‘normal’ for some, others may have been left feeling even more isolated and disconnected.

Still, when spread across the whole population, the experience of loneliness in 2020 looked relatively benign, with those small increases appearing to return to something close to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’ by the end of the year:

Loneliness change during 2020. Source: The Helen Clark Foundation.

However, when we drill down further, it’s clear that the population figures are masking more severe experiences of loneliness for some people: groups who were already at risk, and for whom the pandemic has made things worse. In particular, unemployed people, sole parents, young people aged 18-24, disabled people, and new migrants were especially likely to report feeling lonely at least some of the time in 2020.

Self-reported loneliness in NZ: groups most at risk. Source: The Helen Clark Foundation.

Spotlight on loneliness and disability

Particularly stark and concerning was the fact that 11.3 percent of disabled people reported feeling lonely most or all of the time by the end of 2020; a figure four-times the rate of that for non-disabled people.

Loneliness and disability. Source: The Helen Clark Foundation.

While distressing, this finding comes as little surprise to the disability community. In her contribution to the report, DPA NZ Chief Executive Prudence Walker offers some insight into why rates of self-reported loneliness are so severe among disabled people:

“Generally, disabled people face marginalisation and discrimination in their lives. Some examples are information not being provided in formats that are accessible, inaccessible buildings, our experiences not being valued or believed, not being able to find homes that meet our needs and enable us to live with dignity and respect (2% of housing stock is accessible), our skills not being valued by employers, the lack of affordable and accessible transport, the attitudes of other people, the list goes on… These issues, many of which are systemic, have compounding effects and can mean, for example, that we may not have colleagues, that we are not able to easily socialise at the places other people do, that we may not be able to afford to participate in society on an equal basis with others.”

Prudence Walker, Chief Executive of the Disabled Persons Assembly. Source: The Helen Clark Foundation.

Six planks of an effective public policy response

From the evidence presented in the report, particularly a close analysis of who is most likely to feel lonely and the factors that could be behind this, we generated six planks for an effective public policy response to post-lockdown loneliness in Aotearoa, and made a number of detailed recommendations under each one. The six planks are:

  1. Make sure people have enough money
  2. Close the digital divide
  3. Help communities do their magic
  4. Create friendly streets and neighbourhoods
  5. Prioritise those already lonely
  6. Invest in frontline mental health

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For the remainder of this post, I want to focus in particular on number 4.

Create friendly streets and neighbourhoods

Although we didn’t include a breakdown by urban/rural status in our report, StatsNZ’s wellbeing statistics do suggest that people living in urban areas are slightly more likely to feel lonely than those in rural areas, with 43% of urban dwellers reporting at least some loneliness in the previous four weeks in December 2020, compared to 35% of those living in rural areas.

(I did take a look at the regional breakdown of self-reported loneliness during 2020 for this post, in case there was a particular effect for Aucklanders from experiencing multiple lockdowns, but found no difference between self-reported loneliness for Tāmaki Makarau and the total population.)

There is an important connection between urban design, transport policy, and loneliness, and the higher rates of loneliness in urban areas suggests it will be particularly important to get the social design of our cities right in future.

During the Level 4 lockdown, when vehicle traffic effectively disappeared on our urban streets, these suddenly open streets were instrumental in creating the conditions for people to connect with their neighbours, spend more time outside, and use social and active modes of transport. People’s responses to Women in Urbanism’s Life in a Low-traffic Neighbourhood survey, undertaken during the Level 4 lockdown, were telling:

“People are outside taking walks, scootering, learning to bike, chalking, gardening, and so on much more often. There’s no worry that kids will run into the street and be hit by a car, and with so much time at home with their families, everyone really seemed to enjoy getting outside, walking in the street, and waving from a distance.”

“During this lockdown, my street has become alive with locals. People of all ages and stages have magically appeared, people I have never seen before, and presumably they are locals, of this neighbourhood. These people I have never seen before, I now see daily. Our eyes meet and we say hello. Share a wave, a smile, a moment.”

“The birds are singing and so are the neighbours! It has been wonderful to be able to see so many people out walking, riding bikes and scooters and making, at distance, community connections.

Streets filled with people on bikes and two wheels during the 2020 lockdown. Photo: Jolisa Gracewood

We have an important opportunity now with the adoption of the national policy statement on urban development, to ‘bake-in’ social wellbeing to the design of our future streets and neighbourhoods.

Low-traffic neighbourhoods (see another recent Helen Clark Foundation and WSP report, The Shared Path) need to become the norm. Transport funding needs to prioritise active transport infrastructure that encourages walking and wheeling. New housing developments need to be designed to facilitate social interaction, with communal play and recreation spaces.

It’s also vital that we prioritise accessibility of public spaces for disabled people, who report feeling lonely in such high numbers. Housing, public buildings, streets, and recreation spaces like playgrounds and walking tracks need to be designed to be accessible so that disabled people can participate in their communities within the built environment.

Guidance should be issued under the NPS to stipulate that all urban development projects should promote social wellbeing and meet the highest standards of accessibility, and as a first step, social wellbeing and accessibility should be absolutely prioritised in all Kāinga Ora-led housing developments. This is happening in some cases already, such as the social procurement model being used in the Grey’s Ave redevelopment, but should now be standard in all social housing developments.

Creating friendly streets and neighbourhoods will have overlapping benefits, in reducing loneliness and also by increasing social connectedness for all. The experiences of Level 4 in 2020 show that safe and people-friendly urban places bring communities together. We know how the built environment can help to reduce loneliness, and these well-understood solutions need to be embedded into policy changes.

Create friendly streets and neighbourhoods. Source: The Helen Clark Foundation.

Holly’s report, Still Alone Together, can be downloaded in PDF, accessible PDF, and EasyRead formats from the foundation’s website. Her loneliness research is supported by WSP New Zealand.

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  1. By requiring all new developments be accessible, do you not effectively ban 2 – 5 story developments? because the cost of a lift is spread between so few people it makes them cost prohibitive to build. And considering the current zoning map in Auckland you would effectively put the brakes on the development of most of the cities density uptick we’ve been seeing.

    Looking at the image again the terraced house being displayed next to this is a little ironic.

    Unless I’m completely mistaken and lifts are cheap?

    1. I think there’s some intermixture of “development” term uses. I think it is not suggested to make all new properties accessible, but to make the “developments” (new areas or suburbs) to be accessible in terms of urban environment, and all “Kāinga Ora-led housing developments” (properties built by Kāinga Ora) which are anyway not so numerous and not so easy to get anyway.

      1. That would make more sense, its a little ambiguous.
        Although even if it were just Kāinga Ora projects then it would really either limit where they can re-develop to only apartment zoned areas, or decrease the number of houses they can deliver because of the increased cost per unit.
        I guess that’s the price to pay.

        1. It doesn’t really matter. Kāinga Ora-led housing is just an imitation to show “look we’re doing something with housing crisis”, doesn’t really have much of an impact on the problem.

    2. I don’t know a lot about it, but I know that lifts are subsidised for this exact reason in some Nordic countries.

    3. Maybe we could install paternoster lifts. I saw one in an old Michael Caine movie and have always wanted to try it out.

        1. It sounds like the requested changes aren’t unreasonable.
          I am just very cautious about increasing costs further for the kind of dense development we need to provide housing in general.
          And if these changes make single story far flung developments much more competitive, then the cost to society would be very very significant.

    4. Wouldn’t it be smarter to require x% of a development to be accessible? ie; if 20 units are being built, 4-5 of them are wheelchair/accessible friendly?
      Rather than every unit.

      1. I would have thought the aim in a multi-story building would be to have wheelchair accessible units at ground floor/street level. If you put in accessible staircases (lower risers, more steps) to the first floor, it would become accessible to the ambulant disabled. Then regular staircases to the upper floors. So you don’t need lifts (which you couldn’t use to escape in a fire anyway), but if all new developments had that approach, we’d build toward 20% – 50% accessible, which would be great for both the elderly and the physically disabled.

        1. Yes accessible staircases would help, but for wheelchair users, that’s still just 20% of a five storey block. I think the point of the post is that people who use wheelchairs would actually like to be able to go to their friends’ places, too, and not be excluded from something we all take for granted.

          The accessibility improvements we could be getting from 5-storey development with lifts is being prevented by the regulations favouring three storey developments, which don’t have to have lifts.

        2. I don’t know, I have the impression that wheelchairs are more often than not just used as an excuse to not change anything.

          How expensive are lifts anyway? Is a 3 storey lift cheaper than a 6 storey lift? If it is expensive the net outcome will be negative: a few wheelchair users now have access, but many more will be excluded due to cost.

  2. Great post thanks, Holly! Designing to reduce loneliness and to increase social wellbeing should be a basic requirement of all our building and street design. And reducing traffic volumes can achieve a lot.

    This article has a good perspective on designing our climate approach, including, “Focus on wellbeing in terms of basic human needs” and “Adopt a wellbeing-per-joule perspective”

  3. Am I the only one who thinks that photo of the street looks like one of those artists impressions of a finished infrastructure project? it seems sort of fake with all the people going past.

    1. Were you not out and about during lockdown? It was not hard to see streets with that level of activity, which would be normal if the network was changed to be accessible and friendly.

      1. Funnily enough we stayed home during lockdown. But we saw plenty of idiots wandering around and some even running, puffing their breath onto others. But I just had to remind myself that some people are stupid. “Think of how stupid the average person is and then remember that half of them are even more stupid than that.” -George Carlin

        1. Based on the demise of community transmission once we went into lockdown I’d say the stupid people were those who thought quickly passing someone in an outdoor environment was ever a serious risk.

        2. And you were right with the first version of Covid-19. But the British showed the stupidity of that approach in November 2020 when they locked down and reduced infection throughout the UK except Kent. Then the Kent variant spread right across the UK because it can spread by walking past people outside. Just because you can get away with something doesn’t make it a sensible strategy. The very real problem we face now is people think they have figure out Covid-19 but if we get the delta version we will fail just like everyone else has.

        3. Do you have any links showing the Kent variant spreads to people passing in the street and that was the reason it spread right across the UK?

          I can understand why you would have just stayed inside, given if I recall correctly you have an immune compromised family member. However, for most of us the bigger risk was issues that arise from being indoors for seven straight weeks.

        4. “On Nov. 5, restaurants, pubs, gyms and non-essential shops were shut for a month in England’s second national lockdown. Infection rates plateaued in much of England but – to the bafflement of medics, scientists and health officials – not in Kent.”
          The UK was in a lockdown in November following the same rules as had worked earlier.
          He explained that although the virus, including the variants, transmits less efficiently outdoors, it does not mean you are completely safe from it.

          “I think the variants tell you that you still need to be careful, that you still need to think about wearing a mask and being six feet apart,” he said.”

        5. Yeah, except even then barely anyone had the virus in NZ. There was no evidence of transmission in outdoor settings from transitory passersby. I’d suggest that the positive population health benefit of fresh air and exercise was (and still is) more influential than taking the covid spread risk from negligible down to absolute zero.

        6. Those articles talk mainly about spending a prolonged period of time around people outdoors, that’s quite different to passing someone in the street while out for a walk.

          I haven’t seen anything to suggest this risk is anything more than negligible in the British setting let alone the NZ setting.

        1. No, walking and biking in your local neighbourhood for exercise was definitely allowed in level 4.

        2. There was a lot of very specific and direct instruction to get out of the house and exercise where necessary for mental health. A lot of people within various agencies were really worried about a huge potential surge in family violence, mental illness, and suicide if people just stayed home.

        3. I also remember generally in level four the weather was absolutely superb sunny autumn Auckland which made it even nicer to get out and walk, cycle etc around. Was kind of a waste in some ways with regional travel restrictions but great for local and neighbourly reasons etc.

        4. Nah, you are allowed to drive your car miles away and go for a bike ride. Right? Right?

  4. One of the benefits of a cycle commute,that l get,is a feeling of actually belonging where l is possible in a car ,to step into said car,in your garage,and step out in your parking building at work,how lonely is that. Any time l use the car for work commute,my mood is ĺess optimal ,my bike compels me to engage with the environment. My employer reaps the benefit of my commute,as he/she gets a envigorated employee. Even a solo recreational ride,in my lycra,no less,is good for the soul. Any cycling walking infrastructure,has a payback,IMO,far and above,the actual distance traveled.

    1. I love this – the feeling of belonging where you are. I feel the same when I walk or bike or even catch the bus – especially compared to driving somewhere solo. It’s a rare trip on bike or on foot where I don’t connect positively with another human being along the way, or bump into someone I know and stop for a chat, or spot something I hadn’t noticed before. Whereas in the car, it’s mainly me and my worries; and my thoughts about fellow drivers.

      Also, oddly, “bad” weather often feels less bad when I’m walking or on the bike. The difference between sitting and watching traffic back up while the windscreen wipers lash back and forth, versus moving along in the fresh air. The human contact you make when out in all weathers – hardy dogs and their harder walkers, for example – is energising. And the parts of the journey that are free of scary traffic can be downright exhilarating.

  5. You can’t force people to make friends with others.
    You can still be alone in the middle of a crowd.

    Accessibility is nice, but we already have a housing supply issue and now we want to make things cost even more, providing features many of us don’t need or want to pay for? Some policies won’t cost much so that’s ok, but some have big cost implications. Both in terms of money as well as loss of innovation.

    In the west we have spent decades teaching everyone they should just focus on their own happiness, that sacrificing for others is for chumps, that we are all strong, independent, don’t need marriage or family, that random hookups and non-commitment is ok, years destroying the family unit, getting everyone depending on the government for answers instead of each other so that we lock up all our sick, old people in prisons and forget about them.

    Then add to that people are living longer than ever before, technology such that we never need to leave the house.

    This shouldn’t be a surprise to us. I don’t even know if it is possible to undo the damage that has been done to our culture.

    We made our bed, now we have to sleep in it.

    1. I don’t know if it is possible but there’s no way in hell we should leave it unchallenged for future generations to have to suffer too.

  6. So your solution to loneliness particularly high for disabled people is to deny disabled people access to their only form of transport by cutting parking and road access, denying the medical carers access to provide basic medical and emergency medical needs for disabled people and then to claim disabled people can use active transport when many LITERALLY CANNOT WALK OR CYCLE OR EVEN ENTER A BUS. You doofus, denying disabled people their transport access to a neighbourhood and denying their medical carers and nurses transport access to a neighbourhood they very literally are forced out of living in that neighbourhood or else their basic needs are not available, their health suffers and they become even more isolated and lonely. YOU PROPOSALS LITERALLY INCLUDE INCREASING THE OSTRACISM OF TRANSPORT FOR DISABLED PEOPLE FROM COMMUNITIES AND CUTTING AWAY ACCESS BECAUSE YOU THINK THE ONLY THING STOPPING DISABLED PEOPLE FROM BEING LONELY IS THEY DO NOT CYCLE OR WALK ENOUGH> HOW MUCH MORE ABLEIST CAN YOU GET.

    1. “….cutting parking and road access”

      Sorry……was this proposed in the original post or someone’s response above? I couldn’t see it.

    2. A) I dont know how you’ve assumed people wont be able to drive around? Roads will still exist everywhere, and disabled parking exists, If there’s not enough thats pretty simple, paint over some of the remaining standard parks.
      B) bicycle infrastructure provides much safer paths for mobility scooters etc
      C) the more people that are out of their cars and use space efficient modes, the more room there is for people that need to drive.

      I dont know what world you imagine the original poster wants, but its not what they want. Perhaps try being a calm rational person who doesn’t immediately assume the worst about any idea that they’ve never come across?

      The model transport systems around the world that Greater Auckland posters usually advocate for (eg the Netherlands) have significantly better outcomes for disabled (especially disabilities where people are unable to drive) and elderly than NZ.

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