Using New Urbanism principles to create community and reduce social isolation

New Urbanism principles can be used to intentionally design communities that support community engagement and person interaction in growing urban areas.

The United Nations predict that by 2050, 66 percent of the world population will be urban, and the most urban growth will occur in less development countries. One byproduct of urban growth for some is urban isolation and loneliness. This phenomenon is based on living in urban areas, surrounded sometimes by millions of people, and having feelings of being culturally, socially, and/or economically disconnected, isolated and lonely. This phenomenon can occur with singles, the elderly, families, young adults and couples. The phenomenon is also occurring with native-born Americans, as well as immigrants and refugees.

Some characteristics of urban isolation and loneliness are:

  • Loneliness in Modern Society, a blog published by Interrupted Conversation states, “Loneliness frequently occurs in heavily populated cities; in these cities many people feel utterly alone and cut off, even when surrounded by millions of other people, experiencing a loss of identifiable community in an anonymous crowd. It is unclear whether loneliness is a condition aggravated by high population density itself, or simply part of the human condition brought on by this social setting. While loneliness also occurs in societies with much smaller populations, the sheer number of people that one comes into contact with daily in a city, even if only briefly, may raise barriers to actually interacting more deeply with them, and thereby increase the feeling of being cut off and alone. Quantity of contact does not translate into quality of contact.”
  • "Today’s cities provide us with more opportunities than ever before to connect with one another, engage in new and interesting activities, and secure the resources necessary to live healthy and fulfilling lives. However, cities can also be immensely isolating places lacking in intimacy, identity and accessibility." (Source: Designit)
  • "Of course, a socially supportive urban form will not bring about the complete eradication of loneliness. Loneliness is a signal from our body that we need other people—as valuable a signal as hunger, fear or exhaustion. People will always have feelings periodically of loneliness, but physically dispersing people and degrading public spaces, as the sprawl of recent decades does, make the condition harder to alleviate. As more and more research is showing, this is a serious and growing public issue. The poet John Donne said four hundred years ago, “No man is an island.” Shouldn’t this be acknowledged in our development regulations?" (Source: Congress for the New Urbanism)

The principles of New Urbanism are one design solution to change the built environment to encourage and promote community interaction and the reduction of urban isolation and loneliness.

New Urbanism is defined by the Congress for the New Urbanism is, “a planning and development approach based on the principles of how cities and towns had been developed for the last centuries which includes walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces. This human scale neighborhood design.”

Recent development is characterized by single-use automobile-based design where daily activities can only be done by car. Another relatively recent residential pattern is the proliferation of cul-de-sacs, which created some quiet streets with low traffic, but force increased traffic on the rest of the roads. Our current pattern also concentrates retail along busy, high-traffic arterials, creating a corridor or “stroad” that tries to be both a street with many access points, and an auto corridor to move vehicles quickly and at high speed. Before World War II, most communities in America were developed using a mixed-use pedestrian scale model where residents could meet many daily needs by walking.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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