Connecting IRL: How the Built Environment Can Foster Social Health

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It was a cool spring evening my final year at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. I had been studying relentlessly for the last four years, double majoring in psychology and architecture – and the sleepless nights were paying off as I planned my launch into adulthood. That night, I was hosting health care designers from across the nation on the ground floor of our large architecture school. As I put out the final folding chair, my phone rang.

 “Are you sitting down?”

I lied.

“Yes, mom, what’s up?”

The pause that followed lasted an eternity. 

“Honey, I have breast cancer.”

In the weeks and months after my mother broke the news, my family learned that what started as a small lump turned into a malignant tumor that spread throughout her body, and that she was fighting for her life.

Perhaps like no other time in my life, I yearned for community but often quickly retreated from what I once considered fun hangouts with friends – learning fast how ill-equipped most people were to deal with my overwhelming grief. In that time, in between tours of offices and final project deadlines, life seemed to drip like a leaky faucet that would eventually flood the room. I painted, went on long walks and gardened as if my life depended on it. I found any opportunity to linger outdoors with close friends who understood me, studying, sometimes talking and always taking comfort in our shared space.

After years of training in understanding human emotions and the role of the environment to soothe souls, I became my own teacher. I pushed myself to find comfort in gathering with close friends around the dinner table and to appreciate moments to myself on the shaded bench in the cloister beside our architecture building, where I could enjoy the presence of others without being forced to engage. These spaces nurtured me and allowed me to cope with the sorrow that weighed me down, offering me the sense of peace that comes from the warmth of friends surrounding you.

This time in my life reinforced my commitment to create spaces that can soothe pain like what my mother felt — spaces that can help us navigate life’s ups and downs. That commitment led to this report, which distills the design qualities of everyday places that promote social connection.

What is the Aim

A 2020 Cigna survey showed that more than three in five working American adults are lonely, and rising numbers report feeling left out, misunderstood or as though they lack companionship. These findings contribute to the sense that we are facing a “loneliness epidemic,” as described by former U. S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to sleep loss, ill health, dementia, premature death and even heartbreak – literally. A 2010 study found that these effects on our health are as harmful to our life expectancy as a 15-cigarette-a-day smoking habit.

Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to sleep loss, ill health, dementia, premature death and even heartbreak—literally. A 2010 study found that these effects on our health are as harmful to our life expectancy as a 15-cigarette-a-day smoking habit.

Many people see health as the responsibility of clinicians, nutritionists and other health care professionals. Yet it has become clear that although vitally important, researchers have shown that clinical care makes up just 10% to 20% of overall health. The physical environment is an important factor underlying our health ecosystem, influencing how we think, feel and behave.

This is why third places — libraries, coffee shops, parks — deserve our attention. Third places are a special type of place unlike the private, informal home and the public, formal workplace, being both informal and public. Third places can strengthen social capital, foster social connection, and boost diversity and well-being. They also serve as “enabling places” that promote recovery from mental illness by providing social and material resources.

Yet little is known about what design characteristics of a third place can help improve social health.

Pacific Plaza is a green oasis in downtown Dallas. Its features—from a playground to a pavilion with seating—offer a variety of choices in how to engage with the environment.

What We Did

This report, a semi-structured literature review, identifies universal guidelines to design spaces that combat loneliness and social isolation and foster social capital and community. This review of the scientific and grey literature was performed to identify:

  • the link between social health and overall health outcomes
  • how the built environment is a determinant of social health
  • how third places impact social health and what tangible steps we can all take to reduce feelings of loneliness in our lives and in our communities

What the Findings Mean

This effort is critical right now because architects, designers, city planners, and policy makers across the world underestimate the impacts of their design decisions. Many designs and operational models, in an effort to focus on efficiency and cost savings, discount the importance of preserving and elevating human connection. Designing for social health is important for people in any era, but that’s especially relevant today as loneliness and social isolation become more prevalent. 

We are beginning to recognize the role of our built environments in shaping our social experiences and opportunities for connection. Spaces designed and activated to facilitate social connection can help us overcome loneliness by sparking or supporting meaningful relationships.

This report is a much-needed resource on how to design for social health and empowers everybody with the tools to create better spaces.