Once is the loneliest number: Why parks do what chat benches and slow checkouts cannot

August 21, 2019

Clemence Marcastel

Loneliness is a big issue. It’s been widely covered in the media, and lately, several novel approaches to resolving loneliness have popped into my newsfeed. If you follow this topic, there’s no doubt you’ve seen them too.

There are ‘happy to chat benches’ which encourage lonely people to talk to strangers in the UK and a “chat checkout” where the cashier line deliberately moves more slowly to encourage chats at a Dutch grocery store. Last week the National Post covered a new pill for loneliness.

Efforts to address the dire health risks associated with social isolation are all well-intended and demonstrate how helpless we feel in the face of the elusive issue. The fact is that more Canadians are living alone than ever before. At last count, 30% of Canadians of all ages report persistent social isolation and loneliness.

While headline-worthy solutions may help raise awareness of the issue, what we really need to address loneliness is what author Eric Klinenberg calls social infrastructure.

 

More than chats with strangers

 

 

In his book Palaces for the People, Klinenberg defines social infrastructure as the physical places and institutions that focus on bringing people together. They are shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centres, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks where crucial, sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. Simply put, social infrastructure is “an established physical space where people can assemble”. 

As Klinenberg points out in his book, social infrastructure can mean the difference between life and death for those who are vulnerable, as was the case in the 1995 Chicago heatwave when many isolated seniors perished behind closed doors. As Klinenberg tells us,

“It’s the poor, unemployed, displaced and migrant populations that stand to suffer most from loneliness and isolation. Their lives are unstable, and so are their relationships. When they get lonely, they are the least able to get adequate social or medical support.”

For those who are less vulnerable, social infrastructure is strongly connected to quality of life.

Consider the following:

An older person in my life has experienced a physical injury that has made him unable to participate in twice-weekly scheduled hikes with friends. Now he exercises in his building with headphones on and attends a weekly session with a physiotherapist.

He continues to be physically active but has lost the casual interactions with friends that were part of his regular routine. What’s been lost may have been limited in terms of time spent (that time has been filled with exercise and appointments), but the hole that was left behind by losing time with peers was huge and the consequences are clear to those around him.

Yes, this fellow is a person of privilege who can afford a building equipped with a gym and access to physiotherapy. But, he’s lonely and it’s taking a toll. Research shows that in the long term, loneliness will impact his health. But for now, the loneliness has diminished his happiness and quality of life.

What can be done? The answer is connected to whether and how he relates social infrastructure that surrounds him.

 

More than places

 

People need the company and support of others. It’s how we’re built. This is the vital role that libraries, community centres and parks can play. But, their very existence doesn’t resolve loneliness. As Klinenberg states when discussing libraries:

“The accessible physical space of the library is not the only factor that makes it work well as social infrastructure. The institution’s extensive programming, organized by a professional staff that upholds a principled commitment to openness and inclusivity, fosters social cohesion among clients who might otherwise keep to themselves.”

As highlighted in Park People’s Sparking Change report about maximizing the social impacts of parks, like libraries, the interactions that can happen in parks don’t happen without deliberate consideration:

“People need a reason to come to the park and stay there in order to benefit from its social environment. Park quality, amenities like playgrounds, and, critically, events and activities help create the conditions that draw people out to meet each other.”

 

More than once

 

 

It’s not enough to go to the park once, though going once is certainly a good first step. It’s about making the park a place where people will return, again and again, to form bonds with others and see it as their place where they truly belong.

Park People’s model is about creating sustained programming in parks to make them reliable hubs for social engagement in communities. How does this happen? By providing the right kind of information, inspiration and funding so communities can create community-led programming that is inclusive and engaging, but also ongoing. The park becomes a reliable place to connect with the community over and over again. It’s a place I can go to find community and belonging, which are strongly correlated with my health and quality of life.

Many parks also offer the secondary benefit of getting people into green space, which is proven to make people happier. Importantly, the benefits of green space also happen with regular and repeated exposure. In fact, 20 minutes a day is the magic amount of time it takes to reap the benefits. That may sound like a manageable amount of time, but again, getting people to enjoy the park every day is no small feat.

Making parks part of our social infrastructure requires programming that creates ‘hooks’ for communities to connect to the park based on their own interests. 

There is nothing simple about resolving loneliness. It’s friends, familiar faces in the community and trusted neighbours that create a sense of belonging and purpose for our lives, and these bonds don’t form out of thin air.

It takes thoughtful investment and sustained effort and investment in social infrastructure, including parks, to give people what they need to stay healthy, happy, and thriving in their communities and in our cities.

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