How can you be lonely in a city of eight million people?

Is London the loneliest city? Pic: Sasha Freemind

To kick off our series Is London Lonely? we interrogate the data: who struggles to make social connections, what causes loneliness in the ELL boroughs, and how are councils combatting it?

For most people, lockdown is going to be a temporary blip. However for many people, particularly in London, self-isolating is not dissimilar to their everyday life. 

Again and again, London is labelled as the loneliest city. Here are some stark facts: one in 10 Londoners feel they lack close friends, according to a 2018 survey by the Loneliness Lab. Over half of us describe ourselves as lonely, according to the Red Cross

Cassie Wilde, 29, a landlord who’s lived in Croydon for five years and London for 10, believes: “It’s just a big city vibe of having lots of big businesses, the constant feeling of rushing, and moving around. Having to achieve, climb the corporate ladder, climb the housing ladder – people don’t take time to slow down. Having connection is maybe a secondary factor in lots of peoples’ lives.” Speaking specifically about Croydon: “Although there is a lot of opportunity here, with lots of groups socials, for example, board games, yoga in the park, I don’t feel safe.”

Infographic representing the prevalence of loneliness in London. Pic: Gina Gambetta

But how can a person be alone in a city of eight million people? Olivia Field, loneliness lead at the Red Cross and senior policy advisor on loneliness at the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, explains: “When people are surrounded by lots of people, but these are without meaningful connections, you feel lonely.” The crowds are a constant reminder.

Adam Simpson, 24, a musician who moved to Lewisham two months ago, says: “Since I moved to London, I’ve never lived with friends and God knows I’ve tried, but it’s always fallen through. For me, that’s a huge factor. I didn’t know that moving in with people you never met before was a thing until over a year ago. I didn’t realise that that’s what everybody did in London, as well what I’ve done ever since. It’s really not great. A second factor for loneliness is probably my workaholic nature. It has caused me to have moments where I get back home, I’ve made food. And all of a sudden I realise: ‘Oh, I’ve got no one to talk to.'”

To change this, Simpson believes: “In order to transform the intrinsic nature of loneliness in London, I think we need to change as a culture. I think we’ve become far too inward looking and we need to start talking to each other more.”

Looking at other areas in England, the Red Cross suggests those in rural areas are almost 20% less likely to be lonely than their London counterparts. As any Londoner worth their salt will tell you, there are unspoken social rules that can make the capital feel hostile to newcomers: talking on the tube is forbidden, there is little patience for newbies learning how to be a pedestrian on these overcrowded streets. By contrast, out in the so-called “sticks”, people are thought to be much friendlier. However, this is questioned by Action in East Sussex, who describe the paradox in rural areas of “goldfish bowl living”, as well as the lack of services. 

Although it is not surprising the capital is considered lonely, it is not as straightforward as we may think, believes Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor, a sociologist at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Urban and Community Research. “London is a paradox, it can be very alienating and lonely, but it also has some very remarkable forms of community, association, and culture.” 

Indeed, Nigel Whitfield, 52, a freelance journalist whose lived in Hackney since 1992, has for the last six years been going to his local pub, the Crooked Billet, 84 Upper Clapton Road, after it was made “more friendly and accepting” by a new owner. “A pub at its best is like a communal living room.” He remembers there used to be a regular called June, who would sit in the garden asking who’d buy her a drink and listen to Gold FM. Although she could drive everyone mad, people would always chat with her and one neighbour took her to get her hair done. When she passed away, many from the pub attended her funeral.

His concern is that rising rents, business rates, and gentrification are putting communal hubs at risk: “When you lose those, you lose the ability for people to make those connections. It’s not necessarily the atomisation and being at home, it’s the tremendous loss of those shared spaces.”

Esteban Oritz-Ospina, a senior researcher and Content Lead on Our World In Data at Oxford University, also disputes that we are in a growing “loneliness epidemic”. Questions need to be answered, such as how loneliness differs from solitude, and its impact on our health. Oritz-Ospina asks whether the “as bad as 15 cigarettes a day” quip is accurate for the average person? 

It is important to note too, that being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely, a feeling that’s hard to pin down. The 2018 Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness outlined it as “an unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want.” 

However, as with most things, different people have different experiences. Living in London is not the only factor: Field explained that both younger and older people are more at risk, as are those with disabilities, and people in transitional periods of their lives – for example migrants, those experiencing loss, or people becoming a parent.

Infographic representing different groups experiences of loneliness. Pic: Gina Gambetta

Field believes that before the publication of the Jo Cox Commission report, loneliness was not given much weight; “It was not [seen as] something we could control, not something we could measure, and not something that mattered.” All this is changing now. 

It’s been nearly two years since these findings were published, so we wanted to see what’s changed.

The government has set up a ministerial position to oversee cross-departmental action, currently held by Baroness Barran. This role has launched several awareness campaigns, and devised a strategy with 60 commitments to reduce the problem, including the proposal that health practitioners will meet people’s non-medical needs with things like social prescribing. Additionally, policies will take into consideration loneliness. In January, the government announced an additional two million pounds towards their aims. 

Although Field is positive about what has been achieved, she says: “There is still a long way to go. We’re in the early days and are laying the foundations for change.”

Despite synchronising policies at a national level, Field states that local authorities were best suited to tackle the issue as they were on the ground. So what about in our local authorities – Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Lewisham and Croydon, how are they tackling the problem “on the ground”?

Currently, Hackney has a roundabout way of measuring loneliness. According to their 2018 Residents Survey, nine percent of people feel isolated. One in four said they knew fewer people than a few years ago. To combat this, the council runs several programmes aimed at the elderly.

A spokesperson for Hackney council said; “Hackney is committed to ensuring all its residents feel included and welcome… [we have] collaborations with a diverse group of organisations catering to everyone’s needs and interests.”

Similarly, Croydon Council published a Loneliness and Social Isolation Report in 2016. Although it did not explicitly state the extent of the issue, it addressed it as a problem and offered solutions. Grants between one thousand and five thousand pounds are offered for local groups to reduce loneliness and isolation in over-55s. Previous examples include cinema and gardening clubs.

Currently, Tower Hamlets Council does not have an index of loneliness, but says they are building one. Like Hackney, it has schemes tailored to older people. Additionally, it also offers grant funding to community groups wanting to start grassroot projects for all ages.

Shining a spotlight on this issue is paramount as Jo Cox, who before being murdered during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, remarked: “Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.”

This is part of #IsLondonLonely? series. Read the rest of the series here

Leave a Reply