Connections, Community, and the Science of Loneliness

On my last trip to see my aging parents, I was struck again by the loneliness that comes from diminished connections. They are both inspiring people, and in their younger years were notably adept at making connections with and for others. And at helping people see the good in each other, in themselves, and in the communities they call home.

However, over time those connections are slowly dissolving. While there’s little to be done at this stage, this experience reaffirms the expediency of staying connected as long as we can to all the networks – internal and external – that make for wellness.

The process of saying “what if” does little good. However, I can’t help myself.

“What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?” – T.S. Eliot

French Quarter, New Orleans. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

What if there had been a cottage living option in my parents’ neighbourhood that was a short walk to their daily needs? To help us coax them out of their large family house a decade or two earlier? Before it wore them down?

French Quarter, New Orleans. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

What if our family home had been in a more walkable neighourhood, where they would have been prone to walk the easy thirty minutes a day that is proven to increase memory and decrease the risk of dementia?

The Waters, Pike Road, Alabama. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

These sorts of places are the ones rich in social networks, which – interestingly – build neural networks. Loneliness is as dangerous as smoking or obesity, and more dangerous than inactivity. Loneliness also increases blood pressure and sleep disorders (PLOS Medicine, 2010). John Cacioppo’s scientific book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, he concludes that a sense of isolation disrupts not only our thinking abilities and will power but also our immune systems.

It isn’t being alone that creates loneliness, but the feeling of being disconnected. According to Jacqueline Olds, author of The Lonely American, we should be putting a greater policy focus on the “potentially devastating consequences of social isolation” (Globe and Mail, 2013).

Port Louis, Mauritius, Africa. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

Loneliness is a complicated issue that I’m not prepared to holistically address. It is more prevalent than depression, but we don’t understand it as well because we are generally not as willing to talk about it. We’ve talked extensively about the flip side, though, in walkable, connected places that make for healthy, livable places that tend to contribute to happiness.

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” ― Herman Melville

Toledo, Spain. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

My hometown of Huntsville, Alabama is joining hundreds of others in contemplating a form-based code to make it a better place to live for people of all ages, however at present it’s predominantly suburban in nature. My partner, Ben Brown, made it clear last week that these are not easy problems to solve, and few places are well positioned to rebalance housing and provide livability.

Happily, the ones that are tackling these issues with land use reform are finding the results much less litigious than business as usual, according to Jonathan Zasloff’s insightful blog last week.

Part of the issue is that form-based codes are relatively new – 31 years old – but 82% have been adopted since 2003. More at the Codes Study. And check out case studies lately on the SmartCode Facebook page, though they were not legal cases.

So case disputes will likely materialize over time, particularly in the places that:

  1. Didn’t take the time, money, and care to establish a community vision that could then be codified,
  2. Adopted an all-new replacement code without having adequate local support,
  3. Misapplied the Transect to the region, instead of the neighbourhood,
  4. Failed to capture local character within the code’s basic metrics, or made other number errors like wide streets near small setbacks,
  5. Required walkable private realms without the appropriate investment to retrofit the public realm,
  6. Upzoned properties to be out of the money based on faulty growth projections so stalled economic activity,
  7. Downzoned properties without adequate compensation,
  8. Overcomplicated administration requirements, ill-defined terms, or undefined appeals procedure,
  9. Created confusing text and metrics, or tried to regulate with photos instead of drawings,
  10. Created solutions out of line with the local problem set.

French Quarter, New Orleans. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

Some of the most successful form-based code adoptions have taken a very incremental approach to implementation, making the code optional but heavily incentivized, slowly transitioning downtowns and corridors into mandatory regulations as the locals requested rezoning.

The incremental approach to anything isn’t going to help people of my parents’ generation. But it definitely holds some promise for my kid’s generation, so that our elders’ hard lessons learned won’t be for nothing.

Île Saint-Louis, Paris. Photo credit: Steve Mouzon.

Here’s to the hard work of making the connections within and between our neighbourhoods that make for health and wellness in the long run.

Hazel Borys

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.


  1. David High says:

    Great post! Now, could you rewrite those 10 points in plain English so that my mother-in-law’s eyes don’t glaze over when I share this with her?

    • PlaceMakers says:

      Ha! Thanks, David. Just warmed up part of the list, at least a tiny bit, to ease up on the wonk-talk. Unfortunately, many of referenced errors are just nuanced problems that revealed themselves over time. Tough to fully simplify when the devil is in the very specific details.

  2. Unfortunately I have to agree with the David’s comment and this aspect of planning and design is something that gets far too little attention. Back to the 10 points, those that understand will agree but I’m afraid everyone one else will not. My city’s current codes (not form based) suffer from all of these and are currently being reviewed and re-written to only be updated versons of what they are already. The excuse is no money but that is always the excuse when in reality it is no will. Great artilcle that I’m going to link on my cty’s Facebook page and see what happens.

  3. Thought-provoking piece.

    When I leave my house, I back up my vehicle from a garage into an empty cul-de-sac, drive out onto a mostly empty street. The only “intermingling” I enjoy on my way to my day’s destination is maneuvering through commuter traffic – not ideal by any standard for human interaction. And while my five mile walks around my neighborhood leave me feeling more connected with my community because of engaging my senses in the sounds and sights around me, there is still very little interaction with neighbors who mostly keep to themselves. On a recent trip to New York City, I was struck by the difference of leaving my hotel and immediately being surrounded by people. It was bitter cold, yet there was still this real sense of being connected to a community, something I would never have thought possible in such a huge city.

  4. “Upzoned properties to be out of the money based on faulty growth projections so stalled economic activity,”

    An important point that would bear elaboration.

  5. Thanks for the insightful comments, David, Cory, and Lisa. Bruce, as usual, you have a good point — perhaps I’ll write a back of the envelope piece on each of these 10 points someday soon.

  6. Martin Schwoerer says:

    Beautiful pictures! Thanks, Hazel.

    Everybody who wants to feel good needs to feel connected. As Martin Seligman describes it, happiness has three basic elements: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.

    “Engagement” is pretty closely related to “connection”. (Not to mention, good cities are pretty good at providing “pleasure”, too).

  7. Naomi Weaver says:

    David, so glad I live in Lancaster with you. But get busy because I could use these good ideas beginning NOW . . . or else I might have to move to the French Quarter! Too far away from my adorable grandchildren. Your M-in-L Naomi

  8. Great post! I think those ten points might be boiled down to just one: Planning officials did not pay enough attention to the community (its citizens, its government, its history, its character) for which they wrote regulations.

  9. Hazel, thank you. I’m interested in your philosophy, and wonder if you have a psychological/psychoterapeutical background – that would make much sense, as you are talking of a real core issue of human experience.

  10. Thanks, Martin, Naomi, and Jeff — agreed!

    Stefano, no, I do not have a psychological background, except as a favourite past time. On the therapeutical front, in electrical engineering I studied the body electric, to understand the subtle — and not so subtle — energies that compose who we are.

    We usually think of ourselves as predominately chemical and mechanical beings, but we’re beginning to understand the electrical aspects of ourselves much more in the last couple decades. We are electrical from the most sophisticated neural communications down to the fields that keep our heart beating and further down to the cellular level, using cell wall polarity to take in nutrients and discard waste.

    Arguably similar connections are also seen in our exterior environments, in the networks required for successful placemaking, to generate social, environmental, and economic value. While it’s simplistic to say that street networks (with strong surrounding urbanism) build social networks that build neural networks, most studies are affirming this relationship. My primary interest is in answering Naomi’s request — to get as many of those networks engaged as quickly as possible to make a difference in the livability of places.

  11. Hi there i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting anywhere, when i read this post i thought i
    could also make comment due to this good article.


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