Planning Magazine

Can Strong Social Infrastructure Cure the Loneliness Epidemic?

Creating havens, hubs, and hangouts brings people together and can enhance well-being. Here are 4 steps to get started.

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An example of a hub, the Summit Lake Neighborhood Farmers Market offers fresh fruits and vegetables, live music, visits from park rangers, bike share, activities for kids, and cooking demonstrations every Tuesday night from June to September in Akron, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Talia Hodge.

A silent but pervasive epidemic has gripped the United States for years, but it's not COVID-19. It's loneliness and social isolation, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says poses a "serious threat to mental and physical health." Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has described social isolation as a threat on par with tobacco and obesity and has made addressing it one of the priorities of his administration.

Kimberly Driggins and Bridget Marquis. Photos courtesy of the authors.

Kimberly Driggins and Bridget Marquis. Photos courtesy of the authors.

The interesting thing about addressing loneliness and social isolation is that solutions do not necessarily require deep friendships or organized activities with others. Just regularly encountering others in the physical world can provide the connection needed to ward off isolation's most serious effects.

Unfortunately, the responsibility for solving our loneliness epidemic is often placed on the shoulders of individuals, with experts encouraging people to reach out to friends and family, join clubs, or volunteer. Yet, a comprehensive solution to loneliness requires robust social infrastructure — the network of physical and social structures that build relationships and foster thriving communities. Intentional community-building makes these spaces come alive.

Without this essential social infrastructure, we are disconnected from each other and our institutions, as well as from the places where we live. And, for many communities, this disconnection has led to disinvestment, furthering racial, economic, and social inequities that prevent upward mobility.

For decades, we haven't invested enough in the design and management of places where connections happen: our parks, community gardens, plazas, trails, greenspaces, libraries, apartment communities, and neighborhoods. So, instead of expecting people to solve their own loneliness, it's time for planners, policymakers, and designers to lead the way.

A framework for prioritizing social infrastructure

We recently served together as advisors on a global research project by Gehl Architects — funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — that provides a framework for understanding three types of social infrastructure that are fundamental to reconnecting Americans. They are:

Havens, which are places for people to gather around a shared identity and build bonds in a communal space. This form of social infrastructure is about helping people belong and creating opportunities to support close ties — or "bonding social capital" — among people from similar backgrounds. Havens are particularly important for people from historically under-resourced communities who have not had safe spaces to gather.

An annual summer pool party held in the Crystal House community is part of the Washington Housing Conservancy’s efforts to create social infrastructure in Arlington, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Washington Housing Conservancy.

An annual summer pool party held in the Crystal House community is part of the Washington Housing Conservancy's efforts to create social infrastructure in Arlington, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Washington Housing Conservancy.

The Washington Housing Conservancy's approach to affordable housing and resident economic mobility includes strategies for optimizing trust and belonging in our mixed-income communities. For example, cohesion is advanced through activities like resident-led affinity groups formed around a particular interest (such as women's healing circles and English as a Second Language).

Hubs are places that intentionally encourage socioeconomic mixing, which happens when people interact with others from different backgrounds. At a time when most Americans live in communities where they rarely can encounter others from different economic, social, and racial backgrounds, hubs are where "bridging social capital" is created. In addition to combating loneliness, hubs can help support the diverse social networks that have a positive impact on the economic futures of low-income children.

Partners working across organizational silos in Akron, Ohio, are investing strategically in hubs to reconnect three neighborhoods along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. This series of reimagined parks and plazas provide daily opportunities for people to meet each other across racial and economic divides, while the collaborative process has supported new relationships that span neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Hangouts are places that support casual interactions, where people can just be. Several thinkers and authors in the past few years have called for a return to the lost art of "hanging out" with other people in order to improve health and well-being. Hangouts provide opportunities for people to live life in public.

Hangouts can come in many forms, including lakes, streets, plazas, greenspaces, and sites for cultural and community festivals. During a site visit to Brazil, we observed Rio de Janeiro's famous beaches, which were full of life, easy to access, and offered lots of different types of programming. The result is a captivating and dynamic display of public life.

If we are serious about taking on the loneliness epidemic, we need a mix of these three different types of social infrastructure in all of our communities.

No matter the investment, ask questions. How will this investment increase social connection? How will this place serve as a haven, a hub, or a hangout? Who are the partners, and what are the programs that will ensure it is part of the solution to our loneliness epidemic?

This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. Americans are dying. We have the cure — stronger social infrastructure — and now is the time to commit to it.

Kimberly Driggins is the executive director of the Washington Housing Conservancy. Bridget Marquis is the director of Reimagining the Civic Commons.