Eat, drink and be merry. A mantra we enthusiastically embrace throughout the Christmas period. For many of us the annual festivities of Saint Nicholas include spending time with loved ones and gestures of good will to others. It comes with the dread of embarrassing yourself at the work party, having to fake your love for that hideous green scarf your Grandma also gave you last year and the risk you might get sat next to creepy Uncle Geoffrey at the dinner table. But how much do we consider the estimated 200,000 elderly people who spent Christmas alone? And this loneliness isn’t just for Christmas.
Scaremongering and hate have fuelled deepening divides in Britain, helping to exacerbate seclusion. 9 million adults in the UK are always or very often lonely and 50% of disabled people feel lonely on any given day. What the presentations of Newcastle’s UNI-Health week really exposed to me was the severity of loneliness within the city, particularly affecting the most vulnerable in society. Women, children, elderly and refugees can easily be marginalised by not having a voice or simply being unable to carry out basic tasks we perceive to be trivial, such as buying a bus ticket. But they also revealed what is being done to combat this through community groups, renewed urban design and policy change, rekindling a sense of optimum and hope in the week.
By creating environments which invite people to use them and stay there, allows the low intensity interactions Jan Gehl speaks of, to avoid feeling alone. If seating of varying heights is provided in urban areas, a range of users with different requirements can use the space, enticing people of all abilities, out into our streets and parks, as shown in the summer pop up along Grey’s Street. Well maintained public parks or urban landscapes provide spaces for light exercise, chance interactions and experiencing nature without needing to feel like an athlete to use them. Although 20 minutes exercise outdoors compared with the gym burns 20% more calories, increases self-esteem further and help you to connect with nature, reducing stress. Maybe now is the time to quit that costly membership, don the trainers and experience exercise in the great outdoors of our parks?
Gardening. Perhaps saving that for your retirement years? The long-term satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labour payoff is sustained over a longer period of time than the temporary highs received from alcohol, drugs or sex, improving mental health, reducing food miles and environmentally benefiting the city. Starting to reconsider it yet? Gardening was a common activity discussed which also unites people, creating a sense of community and inhabiting public spaces. The Station Master’s Community Wildlife Garden, and The Comfrey Project basically showed being successfully green fingered, or not, doesn’t matter. The activity allows people with varying abilities and language barriers to participate and that is far more important. Possible other benefits which may arise include group meals and through this learning languages. Guerrilla gardening by residents in Todmorden showed how small scale, bottom up initiatives could help to green our cities and restore some natural environments providing all sorts of natural habitats, drainage banks and carbon captures. So, grab your gloves and trowel and let’s get digging.
Loneliness is also, unsurprisingly, linked to depression. Ulrich’s Psyhoneuroendocrine theory, in actual English, essentially means designing places more similar to the natural environments of the savannahs, where our ancestors lived, to reduce stress. It makes sense that we evolved in natural surroundings and is therefore where we feel most comfortable. But looking across the concrete jungle of Newcastle, reminiscent of many global cities, it’s clear we rarely actively design in nature. The benefits of a need to return to basics, providing spaces for nature within our urban built environments were made obvious, to benefit wellbeing of residents and improve environmental health of our cities.
ARUP’s Wild West End project, is working with the Crown Estate in London to enhance biodiversity in densely built up areas, such as Regent street. By providing green corridors to connect nature through the city rather than just separate green parks in the city, this project is looking at how environmental enhancement in cities can all be beneficial socio-economically and therefore more likely to become widely implemented. Realistically in the capitalist society we live, money makes the world go around, so to convince people to change, environmental facts just aren’t enough. We need to provide solutions like this which provide business minded people with financial incentives as well. Rooftop bars pepper potted with planting provide natural habitats, but also the perfect setting for a cocktail and Instagram worthy snap. Principles of this scheme could be rolled out in the future across a variety of scales and budgets, or ideally included in a project from the outset.
It was an inspirational week revealing the range of initiatives taking place throughout Newcastle. Despite austerity and hardships, schemes like these allow our most vulnerable in society a sense of community and hope for a brighter future. Many of them are small, segregated and low profile, targeting local communities. But when you think collectively about Newcastle, the combined benefit of all of these movements is serving a great percentage of the population, human and none.
Ensuring urban design is thoughtful, considering the relationship between people, nature and our built environment is vital to achieve this and was explored through the week. As influencers of the urban realm we hold a great responsibility and possibility to subtly enhance the world around us and wellbeing of our fellow citizens. If lessons learnt from all initiatives were widely implemented, rather than loneliness, maybe happiness and good health for everyone could be achieved all year round.
 The Independent. (2019). More than 200,000 elderly people spending Christmas alone this year, says charity . Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/christmas-lonely-elderly-people-widows-age-uk-a9230976.html. (Accessed January 08, 2020).
 Campaign to End Loneliness. (2019). The facts on loneliness. Available at: https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/the-facts-on-loneliness/ (Accessed January 11, 2020).
 Allen, J. ACTIVE.com. (2013). 6 Reasons to Ditch the Gym and Exercise Outside. Available at: https://www.active.com/fitness/articles/6-reasons-to-ditch-the-gym-and-exercise-outside (Accessed January 13, 2020).
 Wild West End. (2019). Vision. Available at: http://www.wildwestend.london/vision (Accessed January 04, 20).
[A] Get Into Newcastle. (2019). The Grey Street Gathering Returns For 2019. Available at: https://www.getintonewcastle.co.uk/show-me-newcastle/the-grey-street-gathering-returns-for-2019. (Accessed January 12, 2020)
[B] Station Master’s Centre. (2019). Community Garden. Available at: https://www.stationmasterscentre.org/community-garden. (Accesed January 12, 2020).
[C] The Comfrey Project. (2019). Meet the team. Available at: http://thecomfreyproject.org.uk/. (Accesed January 12, 2020).
[D] Wild West End. (2019). Vision. Available at: http://www.wildwestend.london/vision. (Accesed January 12, 2020).