When I think of places of connection, I remember walking the piazzas of Italy with my mother the summer before I started architecture school. Through the bricks the size of the human hands that laid them, the storefronts inviting you in to linger, and the fountains creating a sense of movement, these beautiful, nature-infused spaces welcome people of all ages and abilities and offer a comforting sense of scale.
Spaces like this—and the benefits they offer to users—have never been more important. Loneliness and social isolation are rising at alarming rates. A 2020 Cigna study of more than 10,000 working adults in the United States found that three in five adults report feeling lonely, and loneliness is increasingly reported among people ages 18–25. The consequences are significant: The synthesis of global research, including that by social connection expert Julianne Holt-Lunstad, has shown that loneliness and isolation are linked to dementia, sleep loss, premature death, and heart disease, and are worse for our health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being physically inactive.
In 2019, as a new mom struggling with my own loneliness and recovering from the recent death of my mother, I found that my neighborhood, with its walkable streets, cafes, and friendly neighbors, saved me. It helped me feel connected and get through this tough time. I was curious to know what research said about how we could design for connection. What I found was reflected in those Italian piazzas—the importance of what I call PANACHe, or a sense of place, accessibility, nature, activation, choice of seating, and human scale. These design characteristics can help us feel comfortable, safe, and able to connect with others.
They can also help us heal. In the aftermath of the 1995 Chicago heat wave—one of the worst climate disasters in U.S. history—data showed that some neighborhoods fared better than others. For instance, two adjacent communities with nearly identical demographics experienced an 11-fold difference in deaths. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg took the data to the streets and discovered the vital role of what he calls “social infrastructure,” which he later defined in his 2018 book Palaces for the People as “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact.” He found markers of neglect such as abandoned buildings, vacant plots, and broken sidewalks in areas with higher death rates contrasted by bustling foot traffic, parks, and small businesses in areas with lower ones. Such markers were largely overlooked by the data and health policy recommendations.
As we emerge from another disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has released Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. In that report, he offers recommendations for confronting this health crisis. His acknowledgment of social infrastructure as a pillar of his plan to foster connected communities gives me hope.
I recently gathered with Murthy and other social connection experts at Harvard University—including Klinenberg, Holt-Lunstad, and political scientist Robert D. Putnam—to discuss how we can build these places. I am now even more fervent in my belief that architects, planners, and designers are critical to combating social isolation. We can help heal and prevent loneliness in every community and project we touch if we are involved, informed, and intentional.
As we invest in the future of our communities, let us not forget the importance of social infrastructure. Let us not forget that social resilience and climate resilience are intrinsically linked and that design that considers them together can be exponentially powerful. Design is never neutral. It either fosters connection or further frays it. What will you create?