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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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:
- Make sure people have enough money
- Close the digital divide
- Help communities do their magic
- Create friendly streets and neighbourhoods
- Prioritise those already lonely
- Invest in frontline mental health
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.
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.