‘Connections’ Ep. 5: How to build connection – when we are all two metres apart

How to build connection – when we are all two metres apart
In this podcast we ask how can we build community within the context of Covid-19?

This podcast episode kicks-off our People, Place and Community project. In a 40-minute conversation with Bethan Harris and Stephanie Goldberg we talk about the importance of community. In particular, how London’s built environment sector can help to build connection – even when we are all meant to stay two metres apart.

This podcast episode was recorded against the backdrop of new Covid-19 restrictions, such as the rule of six, and much of the conversation is framed by this.

Key questions this podcast explores:

  • How does design help to create the conditions for positive community experiences?
  • Which groups do we need to take particular care not to exclude through design?
  • How has the use of public space changed because of Covid-19, and what does this mean for the future?
  • What has been the role of people, such as residents and building managers, and what lessons can we learn from this?
  • How can London’s built environment sector build connection when we are all two metres apart?

Guest contributors:

Bethan Harris, Director, Collectively / The Loneliness Lab. Through her work at the Loneliness Lab, Beth explores how we might reshape and reimagine the places in which we live and work with the ambition of designing out loneliness in our cities.

Stephanie Goldberg, Strategic Planner, GLA. Before life at the GLA, she attended the Bartlett School of Planning. At the Bartlett Stephanie’s research focused on the Whittington estate in the London Borough of Camden where she found that pro-social design can improve feelings of connectivity.

Listen to the podcast: 

Key takeaways:

Loneliness is when there is a mis-match between the quality and quantity of the social relationships we have versus the ones that we want. Loneliness is not necessarily a function of being alone, nor does time spent alone necessarily make someone feel lonely – both time with others and time alone are valuable. This makes the balance of public and private spaces a critical consideration when designing for community connections.

We all feel lonely some of the time! That’s just part of being human, however when loneliness is prolonged, severe, or chronic loneliness becomes an issue. Loneliness has been shown to affect the cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and immune systems, accelerate physiological aging, has been correlated with high blood pressure, and poses a significant risk of premature mortality similar to that of smoking and obesity. It has been prospectively associated with coronary heart disease in women and gives rise to lower cognitive ability in old age. In this sense loneliness is a public health issue.

Loneliness doesn’t discriminate – but there are groups who are feeling loneliness more keenly as a result of the pandemic. Young people are almost three times more likely to have experienced loneliness since lockdown began. And some commentators have suggested that his might be even more of an issue for young trans, non-binary and gender diverse people. For older people, who may be more used to limited social contact, lockdown brought its own challenges; a trip to the shops no longer involved an opportunity for friendly chat with the cashier.

Design can increase a sense of social connection: the Whittington Estate, London, was intentionally designed by Peter Tabori to enable “immediate neighbours to relate to each other.” This was achieved through:

    • Pedestrianised streets to encourage door-step play
    • Public realm that is overlooked by social spaces within homes, such as kitchens. Giving the estate what Jane Jacob’s (1961) would call ‘eyes on the street.’
    • Elimination of “semi spaces” like shared internal corridors, where the rules of engagement and ownership are not always clear for residents.
    • Paired front doors each home has its own directly-accessed front door to ensure privacy, but each door is situated next to (or ‘paired’) with a neighbouring door. This maximises opportunities for regular contact with the same people, helping to build familiarity and positive regard through proximity.

Children are social catalysts: When the conditions are right, certain groups of people (such as children) become social catalysts and bring others together too. And children don’t just connect parents with other parents, children often become fixtures of the public space allowing residents without children to grow familiar with them, and through this connection are able to build relationships with other adults. This suggests some important design and planning implications:

    • Homes need to be big enough and affordable enough to attract families.
    • There needs to be enough of these family homes to support a critical mass of children.
    • The public spaces need to be safe enough so that children can play out and catalyse the spaces.

Individuals make a huge difference too! In this podcast we hear the brilliant story of how Earnest, the estate manager from Elephant and Castle, organised a lockdown talent show and connected old and new residents alike. To support community connection, perhaps we also need to support the skills and development of employees like Earnest?

As we enter a (potential) second wave, grassroots funding and place-based networks are wins for community connections: Lockdown revealed a huge community energy, and showed how powerful neighbourhood connections can be. To build connection when we are all two metres apart there are solutions. In the short-term, grassroots funding would help new and existing community groups to thrive. In the longer-term, we could use evolving technologies to help establish place-based networks which connect residents with retailers, local authorities and developers.


This podcast is part of the People, Place and Community project sponsored by Arup, Countryside and Pollard Thomas Edwards.