Housing, loneliness and health
Since loneliness has only recently emerged as a generalised and disturbing feature of contemporary societies, there is practically no evidence of housing policy that addresses it explicitly or directly. It will be argued that high and increasing rates of loneliness are relevant to future housing policy, not least because housing, loneliness and health are interlinked. Loneliness is highly distributed socially and spatially but has remained largely hidden and difficult to detect (Franklin & Tranter 2008). Research on loneliness, housing and health offers policy makers a timely opportunity to broaden housing policy to address a major social structural problem of our time with considerable scope to increase well-being and social vitality. While recent housing policy has focused on building social cohesion, social inclusion and reducing social isolation in areas characterised by social disadvantage and marginalisation, recent research on loneliness demonstrates that these policy objectives have become relevant to a much wider set of cultural settings, sectors of the built environment and places. This essay argues that housing policy designed to address a more evenly distributed and yet pernicious form of contemporary loneliness with momentous ramifications for health and wellness, cannot rely on simply extending social contact or social networks, since as Bauman (2000; 2003), Putnam (2000) and many others have argued, the current epidemic of loneliness is not about social connectivity and the net quantum of social interactions (which for many has actually increased) but about the quality of the social bonds enacted and maintained. A recent Australian Research Council-funded research on loneliness among older people in residential housing was entitled ‘Alone in a Crowd’ (Jaworski & Moyle 2008) and reported on how residential propinquity can be converted into social bonds that matter, endure and enrich. This, in a nutshell, is the challenge for housing policy makers on a much wider scale. Not all of the causes of loneliness are linked directly to housing, although the fastest growing and soon-to-be dominant housing form, single person housing, certainly is. Much of what we know about the contemporary loneliness epidemic (see Franklin 2009) is related to profound and deeply rooted aspects of social structural change. Nonetheless, the lived experience of loneliness has a housing context, is spatially concentrated in some places, and is located in some housing types and tenures more than others. Loneliness is also endured, mostly in isolation, inside the four walls of a home. Loneliness is also related to specific kinds of housing biographies and careers and therefore it is implicated, amplified and, potentially ameliorated by certain kinds of housing processes, all of which can be addressed by evidence-based housing research and policy.
This essay begins by setting out the historical contexts in which loneliness connects with central tenets of housing policy. It then outlines the theoretical and substantive dimensions of loneliness in contemporary societies, the reasons for its alarming growth in recent years, its distribution and impact, its potential to spread and its profound consequences for health. We use data from a recent survey of loneliness, housing and health conducted specifically for this essay, to see where policy might intervene.
Levels of loneliness on a scale we are witnessing in Western urban contexts today are arguably unprecedented and therefore the stakes and the potential pay-offs from interventions will be high. Loneliness poses one of the most exciting challenges for housing policy makers in a very long time.