The Fight Against Urban Loneliness

We live in a mega-city and share the sidewalk with millions of other humans. And some days we feel lonely.

Sometimes the feeling of isolation hits us at home on a dark winter evening with no weekend plans in sight. Sometimes we feel it when surrounded by other commuters on the subway. In the darkest moments, we think we must be the only people in the city without friends!

Olivia Liang feels it too, and writes that “you can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.”

Urban loneliness isn’t just in our heads. While there isn’t conclusive data to prove that city-dwellers are lonelier than other non-city residents, there’s plenty of proof that loneliness is a reality for many adults. The famous 80-year-long Harvard study that followed more than 200 people throughout the course of their lives has shown that embracing community and maintaining healthy and close relationships leads to the greatest satisfaction in life. It even goes so far as to find a link between people who live alone and length of life. Loners often die earlier. “Loneliness kills,” says Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist and director of the study. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

A UK loneliness report published in 2017 found chronic loneliness to be a reality for people across all ages and stages of life and urban planners agree that the disappearance of public spaces in the city (often replaced by housing) can contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

All that to say, if you’ve ever felt a twinge of loneliness, you’re not alone! City life offers much to families, but it’s wise to be aware of the particular challenges we face in urban environments too. Whether you’ve just moved to a new city or are looking to combat the feeling of isolation, start with these simple ideas to begin forging relationships with other city families. Making deep friendships takes effort and time, but it’s not impossible!

Take the first step

Meeting new friends can be as simple as saying hello to the parent sitting next to you at storytime. Take the first step to introduce yourself, and if you’re new to the neighborhood, mention it. Locals who love their ‘hood are often eager to share insider tips about where to eat, shop, and play.

Ask for help

Opening conversation with strangers can feel awkward and it’s hard to know where to begin. I like to start by asking for help—for book recommendations, the best taqueria, which bus tracker app is most reliable, where to take the kids for haircuts—anything! If you feel comfortable enough, you can even get right to the point and mention that you’re looking for playdates and friends. There’s a good chance they’re looking too.

Park in London—perfect example of a third place.

Spend time in third places

The concept of third places, developed by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, is embraced by urban planners as an effective response to loneliness.

A first place is private space—home. Second places are formal spaces where people spend significant time—schools, universities, and workplaces. Third places are distinct from these as shared spaces where people come and go at will—community gardens, libraries, parks, cafes, farmers markets and the like. Interactions in these spaces are natural and often welcomed. Spend time at third places and you’ll soon feel like part of the community.

Find friends of friends

If you’re moving to a new city, enlist help from the connections you already have. Mention that you’re moving to Los Angeles next month and ask friends if they have any connections there. Reach out to acquaintances you might have lost contact with and ask to meet up when you’re settled.

Use local resources

There are a wealth of city-specific resources for families—use them! Find a meetup or event that looks interesting and go with the intent to talk to people. Start with our rolodex; we’re always updating it with new cities and local resources where you can connect with other parents.

Grow your network

If you’ve moved to a new city for work, start with the connections you already have. Attend the events you hear about in the work chat to get to know your neighborhood. Arrange a playground meetup with another parent from church. Throw a picnic and tell your friends to invite their friends.

The loneliness felt by many urbanites is real, but it’s not the final word! Perhaps we have to work a little harder to combat the feeling, or perhaps the sheer number of people share the city with us sheds light on our internal feelings of isolation. We won’t pretend that making real connections is easy, but personal experience proves that it’s worth it.

Olivia Liang may have it right when she says there’s a particular flavor to the loneliness of the city, but we’d like to say there’s a particular flavor to the relational opportunities of the city too. It takes time, but a network of friends and neighbors that spans from your block to the other side of the city gives a strong sense of belonging and joy! It’s nothing short of remarkable to feel connected to the people who also call your city home.


Cover image: Automat by Edward Hopper. Oil on Canvas. Public Domain via Wikipedia.