Urbanism | Of Loneliness in The City

  • August 21, 2012
  • No comments
  • Author: Shilpa

Loneliness. (Image Copyright Shilpa Bhatnagar www.shilpabhatnagar.com)

Last week, I listened to a talk by Leo Hollis, historian, urbanist and author, at a wonderful event by Salon London (I give away this last detail quite reluctantly, as I’m a big fan of the Salons, and extremely selfishly, would be loathe to see them become too popular!).

Hollis spoke about Why Cities Are Good For You – also the title of his upcoming book. I’m a staunch believer in the goodness and greatness of cities (surprise!), and had a moment of intense agreement with Hollis at the beginning of his talk when he threw out a question to the planners in the audience (of which, much to my surprise, there happened to be more than one, in a group of maybe forty people). The question was “When you plan a major city, what would you focus on first and foremost” and my answer to that was public space – because it is the public realm where the people of the city (its most important assets, not the buildings as frequently presumed) engage with each other and therefore the city itself.

While I greatly enjoyed the talk and mostly agreed with Hollis about Why Cities Are Great For (us), there was one point which I disagreed with partly. Hollis argues (and isn’t the first person to do so) that loneliness in the city is a myth. Now I do not entirely disagree with this, and I certainly am not one of those people who argue for the small town community and the village as being wholesome places of community engagement and individual success (quite the contrary to that in fact, and in fact if you know me well, you might have been subject to one of my rants against suburbia, but that is another topic), but I do disagree with the notion being a complete myth. Hollis and other proponents of the argument against loneliness cite the multitude of fleeting, temporal and superficial “relationships” that form a necessary part of existence and engagement within a city as proof that it is really hard to be lonely in the city.

I agree that it is this collection of temporal engagement that underpins the concept of the public realm that I speak of above, and which lends the city the vibrancy and the “life” that other places often lack. However, I also believe that what this engagement is an antidote to, is ALONENESS, not loneliness. Being alone is a purely physical state – as opposed to being LONELY, which is essentially an emotional condition, more likely to be NOT satiated with fleeting, superficial relationships, of which the city has plenty. At the same time, I admit that the city does offer a far greater chance of alleviating loneliness in the sheer number of opportunities it provides for finding other people to develop more meaningful connections with over time – and yet, it is the very nature of city life that might prevent us from finding the time that is essential to explore and form deeper, more meaningful relationships. This is made worse by the fact that we city dwellers are more globally mobile and migratory than ever before, though I’m yet to come across a proper research study that has explored this last particular correlation (pointers welcome).

I think the cure for loneliness in the city may be found at that particular point of equilibrium where chance, time, engagement and mobility coincide to create the opportunity for meaningful and most importantly non-temporary relationships. But these points of equilibrium are hard to locate in the complexity of 21st Century cities, and it might just be getting harder as the world gets drastically more urban and infinitely more complex.

But one thing is for sure – you can never be alone in the city. That’s what the countryside is for.

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