The Silent Crisis
This article is first of a multi-part series where we examine the origins of social isolation in urban housing, it’s impact on society, and a generational opportunity to build a better future for our communities.
We're living through what is described as the loneliest century in human history. Despite living in some of the most dense urban communities, paradoxically, we are living in ways that are more distant than ever before.
One of truly generational problems of our time, especially after a global pandemic, is that of social isolation. It is known to have profound effects that can be compounded across generations, often in devastating ways. Social isolation is a complex and multi-faceted problem to define or to measure, but is generally understood as a lack of social connections or regular meaningful interactions.
In a recent study by the Genwell Project, 69% of Canadians reported feeling isolated and 80% spending less than 1 hour a week interacting with their neighbours.¹
Among the most immediate problems in urban housing is addressing resident isolation and building a sense of community and belonging in living spaces. The impact of this problem is even more staggering in the case of young adults (Millennials and Gen Z) which over the next 5 years, would represent the largest generational cohort of urban residents. According to a recent Harvard study, a startling 61% of young adults between 18-25 reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “most of the time”; while an equally alarming 56% report suffering from significant symptoms of anxiety or depression. These figures have risen by nearly 4 times compared to 2019!⁽²⁾⁽³⁾
Social isolation is a problem unlike others, while it may not seem as immediate or widespread - it can have a profound impact on physical, social, mental and economic wellbeing of our communities.
- Physical Health: There is growing clinical and academic evidence of the devastating physical health effects associated with prolonged periods of isolation. It can be the equivalent of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and can pose the same mortality risk as diabetes. Social isolation can morph into chronic illness which induces a constant state of ‘flight or fight’ that drives up the level of cortisol in the body.⁴ This can lead to insomnia, cardiovascular disease, eating disorders etc. even among young adults.
- Mental Health: Social isolation has shown a remarkably high correlation with other mental health and substance abuse problems, and is known to make one prone to spirals with other illnesses. Millennials and Gen Z have among the highest reported levels of anxiety and depression and are also reported to lack the tools or experience for emotional sustenance. Social isolation can rapidly compound psychological aging and has been reported to increase the likelihood of early onset dementia and related cognitive co-morbidities by up to 64 times.
- Social Health: Social health refers to the collective ability of individuals to derive a sense of belonging and have meaningful interactions within their local communities. Social media platforms have had a questionable yet deep impact on the social health of our communities, particularly since the pandemic. On one hand digital technology has enabled unfettered interactions across distances, but they can seem devoid of meaning and spontaneous human connection. Studies have also revealed that prolonged social media use can also greatly compound feelings of loneliness, inadequacy or anxiety.
- Economic Impact: In healthcare expenditure alone, social isolation costs up to $7.5 B annually across Canada and US. In addition to this, social isolation is estimated to cost companies up to over $5 billion in annual losses from workplace productivity and employee mental health.⁵ Other direct financial costs can include mental health counselling, addiction therapy and support services.
Unlike other parts of the world, the effects of social isolation in North American urban communities have also been compounded by factors that range from demographics to urban planning to housing economics.
- Demographics and Lifestyle factors: In Canada, single person households now represent the most common household segment, at 30%, this is the highest it has been in recorded history.⁶ It would also be the first time in a century that multi-family housing may represent a permanent housing choice for young adults and seniors alike due to affordability and related reasons.
- Urban Planning: Prior to Covid-19 pandemic, the design of urban residential spaces wasn’t optimized to foster social connection or building resilient communities. The almost exponential rise in housing density and market size has had a surprisingly little effect to make an urban living experience feel more vibrant or close-knit. Despite the power of proximity, what we see today is a resident experience that may feel indifferent, transitory or even disconnected.
- Cultural factors: Social isolation can be a bellwether for socio-economic and moral health of countries. When considered in contrast with other parts of the world, high levels of social isolation also represents a developing cultural and moral crisis in some of the North America’s leading urban communities. It represents at least an oversight to consider building the social along with the physical infrastructure in large cities. It also reflects, at a societal level, the overemphasis on hyper-individualism that can often supersede collective wellbeing.
- Housing Economics: The rise of real estate as an investible asset class across global private and public capital markets have had a central role in shaping the present and the future of urban living spaces. Even in the aftermath of the global financial crisis 2007-2009, there is a growing disconnect between social and economic fundamentals of residential real estate markets.
- Lack of Awareness: Loneliness and social isolation are highly stigmatized problems and there is also a surprising lack of awareness and educational resources to address social health. Isolation by definition can seem to be a solitary battle that can evoke feelings of helplessness and many find it hard to access educational resources or healthcare services geared specifically towards the problem. In Canada, organizations like the Genwell Project and the Hey Neighbour Collective have been working to create awareness and build resilience within our urban communities - however there are still long ways to go.
These are truly unprecedented times, where so many parts of our lives have been tested and transformed. But as has been the case for centuries, we can believe in the ability of our communities to come together, overcome problems and create spaces we’d want to live in.
- Genwell 2021 Social Connections Survey [https://genwellproject.org/research/]
- Loneliness in America, Harvard Graduate School of Education 2021 [https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/loneliness-in-america]
- KFF Foundation: The implications of Covid-19 for mental health [https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/]
- Ontario Chief Medical Officer’s Report 2017 [https://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/common/ministry/publications/reports/cmoh_19/default.aspx]
- New Economics Foundation - Cost of Loneliness to Employers [https://neweconomics.org/2017/02/cost-loneliness-employers]
- 2016 Canadian Census [https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/index-eng.cfm]
- Cigna - Loneliness in America Survey 2018 [https://newsroom.cigna.com/loneliness-in-america]