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Last year I participated in the Loneliness Lab, an initiative to design out loneliness in London. Hosted by Collectively in partnership with Lendlease, this week-long design sprint saw 32 participants prototype and test ideas across local communities in the London Borough of Southwark.

The week kicked off with a day-long exploration of the issue to help us to understand and reframe loneliness in our minds as a public health epidemic that’s as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Faced with the complexity of the issue, we were then oriented to think about the built environment and urban public spaces as fertile ground for interventions. We formed teams and embarked upon a week-long experimentation around a chosen sub-theme.

My team headed to East Street Market, Walworth, to observe how people were interacting with each other and the place. We asked one simple question: ‘What did you do the last time you felt lonely?’ This opened up plenty of conversation, and we discovered that the community felt the market had been blighted by rapid regeneration, the consequent displacement of local people, and a lack of investment into the market and its traders. It became evident how much this open-air market means to local people socially, culturally and even psychologically. One person we spoke to stated:

Whenever I feel lonely, I go outside and connect with new people on this street, even if it’s to start an argument with someone. Whatever you can’t change, let it go. Free yourself.

The underlying message in this for me was how important it is to have the freedom to find human connection without needing access or permission. It highlighted the significance of streets and open-air markets as spaces of conviviality, especially against backdrops of displacement in which people are experiencing a slow erosion of familiarity with their local environment and, subsequently, their sense of belonging. One thing the people on East Street had in common, whether conscious or subconscious, was the freedom to roam their streets in the knowledge and even expectation that at some point they would find serendipitous interaction with others.

The experience showed us how big a role the animated and personable market traders and shopkeepers play in facilitating such a vibrant place. Once we realised this, we could identify design opportunities to support their role as hosts of the market’s social fabric.

A prevailing question in my mind since the Loneliness Lab has concerned the design conditions needed to facilitate these sorts of cultures in our streets, neighbourhoods, and places where the social and cultural fabric are in decay. What does it take to revitalise open spaces of conviviality?

We’ve had the privilege to think deeply about these challenges through seven years of research, development and experimentation at Impact Hub Birmingham, taking a systemic approach anchored by people and place. This journey has led us to a new venture: Civic Square, a bold approach to visioning, building and investing in civic infrastructure for future neighbourhoods.

By considering the role of physical architecture and the built environment alongside social and institutional architecture, and by designing business models that are interdependent and regenerative, I believe we can design in a deep interconnectedness across local ecosystems to help address the challenges of loneliness.

This post was extracted from our Kinship in the City report.