2020 was a very lonely year for a lot of people.
Not only was the lockdown tough (lockdowns, if you happen to live in Auckland), but many people already experiencing stress, economic hardship, and marginalisation actually felt lonelier later in the year, as everyone else returned to "normal" and stopped checking in.
This is one of the findings of Still Alone Together, a report released this week by the Helen Clark Foundation and WSP New Zealand that looks at how loneliness changed in Aotearoa New Zealand during 2020, and what it means for public policy.
We found that disabled people were four times more likely than non-disabled people to report feeling lonely most or all of the time. Other groups more likely to experience severe loneliness included sole parents; people on very low incomes; unemployed people; new migrants; and young people aged 18-24.
Interestingly, for some people in these groups, the lockdown itself, while challenging, had its upsides, because people made conscious efforts to check in on them regularly, by phone, over the fence, and by bringing around groceries and so on. It was afterwards, when this fell away, and they were left feeling isolated and excluded again, that some reported feeling lonely nearly all of the time.
We reported on another of these unexpected upsides of the level 4 lockdown in a separate report last year, the Shared Path, which looked at how we can scale up the use of low-traffic neighbourhoods in Aotearoa New Zealand as a way to reduce emissions, improve road safety, and create connected urban communities.
During the lockdown, people remarked on how much they enjoyed the quieter streets with no traffic, enjoying being able to spend more time outside, send their kids out to play safety, go for more walks and bike rides with family, and stop to chat to neighbours at a safe distance.
In the Shared Path we looked at how we could achieve streets like that all the time, without the need for lockdown conditions, and made a number of recommendations.
There is an important connection here between urban design, transport policy, and loneliness, which is why one of the suggested policy planks in Still Alone Together is to create friendly streets and neighbourhoods.
As the lockdown demonstrated, open streets where people (not cars) are prioritised are instrumental in creating the conditions for people to connect with their neighbours, spend more time outside, and use social and active modes of transport.
We have an important opportunity in Aotearoa now with the adoption of the Government's national policy statement on urban development, to "bake-in" social wellbeing to the design of our future streets and neighbourhoods. Guidance should be issued under the NPS to stipulate that all urban development projects should promote social wellbeing and meet the highest standards of accessibility.
As a first step, social wellbeing and accessibility should be absolutely prioritised in all Kāinga Ora-led housing developments. This is happening in some cases already, but should now be standard in all social housing developments.
It's also vital that we prioritise accessibility of public spaces for disabled people, who report feeling lonely in such high numbers. Not being able to access accessible housing, visit friends and families in their homes, attend social events and community gatherings held in inaccessible venues, or make use of public spaces like playgrounds and walking tracks are some of the ways in which the social exclusion many disabled people experience is compounded by the physical environment.
Inclusive infrastructure, such as the award-winning Tākaro ā Poi/Margaret Mahy Playground in Ōtautahi Christchurch, which provides play opportunities for people of all ages and abilities, is the way of the future.
Some of the other recommendations for public policies that will create the conditions for social connection to thrive include making sure people have enough money by implementing a guaranteed minimum income (starting with raising benefits and the living wage to liveable levels), closing the digital divide by making the provision of affordable internet connections standard in all social housing tenancies, and speeding up the investment in and delivery of the new frontline mental health service.
• Holly Walker is the deputy director and WSP Fellow at the Helen Clark Foundation. She has spent much of the past year researching loneliness and its implications for public policy.