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People living in dense UK cities are more likely to feel lonely

The skyline of Edinburgh, UK

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People who live in dense urban areas, particularly those with closely packed apartments, are more likely to experience loneliness and isolation, a large-scale study of UK cities has found.

Chris Webster at the University of Hong Kong and his colleagues analysed health data from nearly 406,000 people in 22 UK cities held by the UK Biobank and compared it with detailed data of their environment, such as their proximity to busy roads and green spaces.

The team found that people’s self-reported loneliness increased by 2.8 per cent for every additional 1000 housing units within 1 kilometre of their home, while their self-reported social isolation increased by 11.4 per cent. The researchers controlled for factors including age, health and socioeconomic status, finding that the effects were more pronounced in men and retirees.

Compared with their counterparts living in the lowest residential densities, men in the highest densities were 23.5 per cent more likely to report loneliness, while retirees in areas with the densest housing were 17.4 per cent more likely to do so.

“Our study suggests that loneliness is not only still prevalent in 21st-century cities, but is so endemic that we can detect a regular pattern and measure it,” says Webster.

The team also looked at mental health impacts by housing type and found that people living near a higher density of detached housing were less likely to experience loneliness and social isolation. A higher density of apartments, on the other hand, was linked to an increase in these factors, which the researchers suggest could be due to a lack of privacy and control, producing social stress.

They say the findings demonstrate the need for urban design and density planning to be factored into strategies to tackle loneliness and associated chronic conditions.

“Housing is the basic building block of a city, and the way they are packed may be one of the keys to creating healthy and resilient cities of the future,” says team member Chinmoy Sarkar, also at the University of Hong Kong.

Journal reference: Landscape and Urban Planning, DOI: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2021.104194

Need a listening ear?  UK Samaritans: 116 123; US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800 273 8255; hotlines in other countries.

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