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How can placemakers help to reduce loneliness?

How can placemakers help to reduce loneliness?

Helen Ashby-Ridgway 21 Jun 2019
Last week was Loneliness Awareness Week, a week established by the Marmalade Trust to raise awareness of loneliness and social isolation, to reduce the stigma of loneliness and to help people connect. This will be its third year and the movement is growing. This isn’t surprising when studies have shown that in the UK more than 9 million people always or often feel lonely[1]. The Costa Book Award winning novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was written by its author Gail Honeyman after she had read an article on the subject of loneliness which reported on an interview with a young lady who said she would come home from work on a Friday and then wouldn’t speak to anyone again until Monday morning. Such a situation seems incredibly sad but worse yet, extensive research shows that loneliness poses a number of risks to physical and mental health, including: Increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke (Valtorta et al, 2016), Increased risk of high blood pressure (Hawkley et al, 2010) Greater risk of cognitive decline (James et al, 2011) Higher risk of the onset of disability (Lund et al, 2010) More prone to depression (Cacioppo et al, 2006) (Green et al, 1992) Predictive of suicide in older age (O’Connell et al, 2004); and, One study concludes that lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012). Some of the studies are more worrying. Not long ago a stark headline was being carried by a number of newspapers. A meta study (a study of studies) of some 3.4 million people by Professor of Psychology Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her research team[2] had concluded that weak social connection has the same risk of death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Moreover, according the findings it doesn’t matter whether the loneliness is perceived or actual the risk to health remains the same[3].The NHS ‘Behind the Headlines’ critique of this particular study concluded that the research ‘provided some evidence that the isolation was causing ill health, rather than the other way round, but we can't be certain[4]’. Whether or not this particular headline is as troubling as it appears the remaining evidence that suggests that loneliness and social isolation can have adverse impacts upon our health and well-being and upon the UK economy. Research reported by the Co-op suggests that loneliness costs UK employers £2.5 billion per year. Causes of loneliness The causes of loneliness are not surprising. They include but are not limited to: Changes in day-to-day routines (such as retirement), A lack of or loss of friends (such as through bereavement or divorce), Restricted mobility, cognitive and sensory impairment or other causes of poor physical health (which then create a vicious circle), Financial limitations (limiting ability to participate in activities), Personal characteristics (such as age, stage in life, ethnicity, sexual orientation); and, Neighbourhood characteristics (such as a lack of amenity, layout of streets, crime). Loneliness is not only restricted to those who are alone or are of a particular age group.  “Young or old, loneliness does not discriminate” said the late Jo Cox MP who, with her colleague Seema Kennedy MP, set up a cross-party Loneliness Commission in 2016. Source: ONS analysis of Community Life Survey August 2016 – March 2017 Creating spaces that reduce social isolation National and many local planning policies seek to ensure that developments create healthy and safe communities. Many of the recent call to action publications by a variety of respected organisations, charities and commissions focus on a wide range of measures to improve loneliness and to reduce social isolation. However, not as much has been written in these documents about how the built environment can contribute to tackling its causes. As place makers we can help to create places that encourage social connection and to create spaces that people want to use and are able to use that are safe and secure and that are accessible to all.  These are just a selection of ways that creating spaces and places can help to increase both formal and informal social interaction which may in turn help to reduce loneliness: Making dementia-friendly spaces that are designed to encourage people out of their homes, with connections and routes that are accessible and safe (The RTPI has published practice advice on this); Ensuring that amenities and facilities are in walking distance and the routes to these places are safe, legible and encourage more people to use them; Delivering a range of places for leisure activities and where people can meet - from community halls to bowling greens, and from public squares to public footpaths; Including facilities for physical activity such as formal parks and informal open spaces, playgrounds for children where parents can mingle, as well as allotments for all ages; Ensuring that the spaces to meet are safe, with excellent natural surveillance through active frontages and well-considered layouts; Creating jobs and educational opportunities with further enhancements by creating dedicated indoor and outdoor spaces for people to meet during lunch breaks (rather than eating a sandwich at a desk); and, Places for cultural activities through formal and informal spaces such as heritage assets, coastal paths and outdoor theatres. Understanding why places and spaces are important in helping to combat loneliness is a good starting point. Indeed, many of the measures are integral to high quality urban design decisions but can be easily missed although our experience, from working on health impact assessments for a number of projects, is that the measures can be simple and often not costly. Whilst we cannot solve the factors causing loneliness entirely, placemakers can be part of a range of measures that help.  [1] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-commits-to-government-wide-drive-to-tackle-loneliness [2] https://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/SCA_Holt_04_27_17.pdf [3] https://www.ahsw.org.uk/userfiles/Research/Perspectives%20on%20Psychological%20Science-2015-Holt-Lunstad-227-37.pdf [4] https://www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/loneliness-increases-risk-of-premature-death/  

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Is your project locked in an echo chamber?

Is your project locked in an echo chamber?

Helen Ashby-Ridgway 18 Jun 2018
Around 10 years ago, Lichfields advised on a modest eight-dwelling development. It was not a sensitive site and the principle of development had already been established by a previous appeal decision. The only difference between the appeal scheme and the later proposal was a new, narrow foul water drainage pipe routed through adjacent woodland. A great deal of iterative design work had taken place on the precise route of the pipeline, particularly to respond to detailed tree and ecology surveys. As the principle of development had already been established, it was decided that community engagement was not necessary for the new proposal. With the benefit of hindsight, this proved to be an unfortunate omission. A number of objections to the pipeline were raised and this small-scale development was called in by the local ward councillor to be determined by the planning committee. A few days before the meeting, the Committee visited the site and at this point it all became clear. An influential member of the community had been reporting to local residents that the development included a 60m diameter pipeline through the woodland: the pipeline in reality would only be 60mm in diameter, however. No wonder the local community was concerned! Had someone stopped and thought about the reality of this for a moment, they would have realised that a pipeline of 60m was unlikely. This was only a scheme for eight dwellings and the woods were only 85m at their widest - the Channel Tunnels are only 7.6m in diameter. Despite these facts, the rumour mill had started and there had seemed to be no stopping it. Having now understood the concerns, we explained the proposal and corrected the misinformation, which put the local residents’ minds at rest. Planning permission was granted at the subsequent committee meeting. Roll on ten years and it is now said that we are living in a post-truth society, with social media playing a significant role in providing fake news. Had our eight-dwelling scheme been submitted today, the local community’s objection, despite being based on false information, could have spread much further afield via social media and misled objectors could have been mobilised in greater numbers. Mis-information spirals and fears of development proposals are heightened through the creation of community ‘echo-chambers’ (today’s online equivalent of the inaccurate information feeding into the rumour mill). Social media often creates echo chambers of similar views and the challenge is to break these up where their messages are inaccurate. Hence there are good reasons why applicants should no longer be ignoring social media as part of their planning strategies, as Sarah Watts’s recent blog on the pros and cons of using social media in consultation and engagement explains. The key concerns for applicants considering using social media include needing to know: how to use social media; how to engage with those who post; how to monitor content; how to be proactive rather than reactive; and how to effectively respond to the most challenging posts, reputation management, data quality and the potential overwhelming volume of information. So what should a developer do? The starting point is to plan to use social media to its full effect - don’t ignore it just because of perceived potential risks. The focus should be on using social media for the benefits it can bring. At the very minimum, a good planning strategy will include social media monitoring. Once underway, this ensures an advantage over those ignoring social media entirely. Monitoring enables the identification of project supporters and makes it possible to identify those individuals and groups where consultation and engagement activities may or may not be needed, and any messages strengthened. And there is more... An active social media management strategy helps discover, understand and identify the influencers and campaigners in a community. This information can then be used to increase levels of engagement as the scheme designs evolves, to encourage positive discussions during the consultation period, to understand the views of the community, and help with interaction where this is needed. It is much more likely that appropriate responses to the naysayers can be formulated in advance too, if and when that time comes. Compared with traditional exhibitions and pre-application events, over the past few years there has been a shift in those who are talking about projects and what they are saying. Social media attracts a wider range of people, drawing many of the hitherto silent majority into the conversation. Local communities know their areas better than anyone and are often passionate about their economic and social history, and any changes that are likely to come about from proposed development. If there is inadequate, deficient or inappropriate engagement with local communities, it is not unusual for their objections to be grounded in fear and a lack of understanding of the proposed development, or for there to be perceived deficiencies in the applicant’s understanding of the context of the site. Monitoring and managing social media as part of consultation and engagement should be undertaken as part of a clear integrated strategy for a development project, rather than being an add–on, or a knee jerk reaction at a late stage in the planning process. Engaging with communities at different stages using a multi-media approach enables wider communities to become involved and empowered – often to the overall benefit of a development proposal. By using a range of tools and techniques, with social media being just one of them, a new group of people can be reached and stronger support for a project can be achieved.

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