The Workshop Way is a series of white papers, research reports, and reflections that articulate the “why” behind the way we approach our work.
Brian Schermer, Ph.D., AIA, Principal, Workshop Architects
Digital distractions. Stress. Low self-esteem. Differentness. Lack of social opportunities. All are thought to cause loneliness. Pre-pandemic, a spate of articles in the popular press and research journals sounded the alarm about the growing problem of loneliness. Isolated as we are by this great distancing, we are collectively experiencing a form of social isolation that is unprecedented and unfamiliar. We can thank technology for keeping us connected to family, friends, and co-workers. Zoom is a godsend for curtailing the worst effects of our confinement, but the intimacy it provides can only go so far.
The current crisis appears to be forcing a new normal upon us, but history suggests it will be temporary. After the worldwide 1918 flu and more recent, albeit limited outbreaks, people returned to their workplaces, schools, theaters, restaurants, parks, and public transportation. It will be a relief when all of this is over. However, when we return to our physical places, we will also return to the familiar problem of loneliness. How shall we plan, design, and activate our physical places to make them feel more welcoming, inclusive, engaging, and safe?
Workshop’s award-winning research on student life spaces on college campuses offers useful insights about the capacity for physical places to help people stay connected:
Our Campus Capital Mapping research suggests that people can readily identify and mark the most social places on and near their campuses.
Choice matters. When students can identify a large number of social places on their campuses, they are less likely to feel lonely.
Cultural background matters. Students from the dominant cultural background can identify more social places, and thus have more choices for connecting with others.
Student unions can be havens for the underrepresented minorities and the marginalized, but others can be alienating.
Student unions tend to be better at reinforcing existing relationships rather than nurturing new ones.
We can apply much of what we are learning about college campuses to other places, including our workplaces, neighborhoods, and cultural institutions. We must do a better job of understanding how our physical places serve the needs of those who struggle to create social connections. We need to be able to measure these settings by the number and variety of opportunities they provide for interaction. We need to understand how to transform great places for bonding with those whom we already know into equally great places for meeting new people. We need to do a better job of understanding why some places feel welcoming to certain people and why some do not.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, loneliness was increasingly recognized as a problem. Viewed through the lens of the pandemic, we understand more fully why it is such an important measure of societal wellness. If we are successful in creating places to alleviate loneliness, we will be in a much better position to cope with future health crises and other shocks and stressors that are sure to come our way.