A porch, when well designed, can be a solution for one of the greatest modern health risks: loneliness. The dangers of loneliness are widely underappreciated, and so is the role that mundane things like porches can play in solving it. Spreading both ideas is urgent.
The health impacts of isolation are shocking. Feeling lonely increases the risk of dying by any cause by 26%, or by 32% for people who live alone, according to a meta-analysis of 70 studies. That is about the same risk associated with morbid obesity. For comparison, being inactive roughly doubles risk and smoking may triple it, but a lack of social contact is a contender among the top underlying causes of death.
Scientists are not fully clear on the dangers caused by loneliness, but they know a few things. Isolation elevates a stress hormones, hardens veins and arteries, and increases risk of heart attack. It even shifts gene expression in potentially harmful ways. In rats and mice, it compromises neuronal function, the immune system, and the body’s defence against cancer. Lonely people’s wounds heal more slowly and isolated elderly people become frail quicker. Loneliness appears to impact some of the most foundational systems that maintain our daily good health: the brain, hormones, and genes.
Many of the issues caused by loneliness are linked to stress, and from an evolutionary perspective, that makes sense. As psychiatrist Charles Raison told NPR in 2015, any of our hunter-gatherer ancestors left alone would be in trouble: "Literally they would die. There was no human way to live in isolation.”
These impacts are alarming because rates of isolation are rising. People have been joining social groups at lower rates for decades. As many as one third of people now live alone in many countries, and elderly people increasingly report feeling a lack of social connection. Among adolescents, intensive internet and social media consumption is associated with greater isolation.
Medical researchers John Cacioppo and Louise Hawkley call for “a national health care plan” that “supports the maintenance of social connections across the lifespan.” Unfortunately, friendship is difficult to medicate. One arena in which people have tried is in nursing homes, and according to a review of the evidence, having volunteers spend one-on-one time with elderly people has shown little or no measurable benefit. This is perhaps unsurprising: sincere friendships tend not to be assigned, and they usually do not require volunteers. If such a program were effective in some contexts, it is unlikely to be a popular solution for all lonely people at a national scale.
The same study also finds, however, that inviting elderly people to organized group activities is effective for reducing loneliness. While prescribing friendship may not be possible, it is possible to create contexts in which people can meet on their own terms. Outside nursing homes, governments can do so by staging networking events or by promoting civic volunteerism. But while such programs do help, they are unlikely to shift trends that are making hundreds of millions of people lonelier in wealthy countries worldwide. Solutions must address the root causes of isolation, and make all our cities, streets, and homes more connected places.
A root cause of isolation is likely that people want it, albeit by a different name: privacy. We build homes that lock out the rest of the world. We live alone because roommates are a pain. According to Atul Gawande, both parents and children alike tend to prefer living alone when they have the option, even in societies where extended families are the norm. Loneliness, at its core, is excessive privacy: the consequence of getting too much of what we want.
In this, loneliness appears to be similar to other major public health issues. Being inactive, eating too much, and having complete privacy all have in common that they were not options during our evolution. Our instincts lead us to crave them, but do not stop us before we have too much. All three are what Daniel Lieberman calls mismatch diseases: problems caused by the disconnect between the environments we evolved for and the environments we live in today.
The solution, however, is not to force people to live in our ancestral tribal groups. Nor will it help to create highly-social group homes that few people want to live in. The design solutions we need must meet people’s desire for privacy, while stopping short of creating complete isolation.
And for that, the front porch is a perfect design solution.
The Power of a Porch
A good porch — meaning one that is 7 feet deep or more so it can fit a table and some chairs — encourages people to spend time outside, visible on the street, so that while reading or having lunch, it is possible to see friends or neighbours. In contrast, many people today only encounter someone by chance at home if they are being robbed. A porch is the difference between some possibility of forging chance social connections in all of life’s days and hours spent at home, and no possibility.
A good porch, however, is not one positioned directly next to the sidewalk, where any passing stranger could eye a person’s lunch. In that case, people will not spend time on the porch because it would violate the need for privacy. According to the consultancy Happy City, the ideal is for porches to be roughly 10 to 12 feet from the street. (Full disclosure: I have done contract work with Happy City). At this remove, people can have a relaxed, momentary conversation with a passerby, but they can also discretely choose not to, perhaps by focusing for a moment on their book. A good porch makes social encounters feel comfortable precisely by offering sufficient privacy.
This combination of exposure and privacy is elemental to fostering social connections in all parts of life. Public benches only allow people to talk if they are close together. And yet, benches should not directly face each other either, or else strangers will feel they are staring at each other, undermining each other’s privacy. Preferably, benches should be angled at between 90 and 120 degrees, so that both talking and not talking will feel natural.
The same principle is at work in the best local cafes and bars. In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg argues it requires an enormous commitment to invite people into the privacy of one’s home. In contrast, in a local cafe there is, “an immunity from the costs and impositions that other kinds of friendships entail.” Part of the service of a good watering hole is that it, “guarantees that the price of friendship will be rock bottom.”
The basic formula is to create places where people can expose themselves to chance encounters, but on their own terms, where they maintain control over their own privacy. This basic approach can be applied to whole communities. In neighbourhoods where people can walk for daily needs, more people tend to know each other, because in the mere act of walking, they expose themselves to the possibility of seeing friends — especially if there are good porches. So too for areas that have small local parks near homes, because the same people tend to frequent these same parks. In these communities, however, residents retain the option to return to the privacy of home or car. In car-dependent communities, in contrast, privacy is the only option. When there is nothing useful to walk to, the only way to see friends is to make plans — and it is all too easy to forget to make plans.
I was recently in a neighbourhood of West Toronto that had porches that perfectly matched the standards described above. So I tested the theory by socially encountering a woman sitting on a porch. I asked her if the research were true, and here is what told me:
My friend who used to live next door said that in her new neighbourhood, there aren’t as many front porches and she doesn’t know her neighbours as well as she did on this street. I find the front porches really bring people together because you’re seeing them sitting, reading their paper. We have a block party, and if it’s raining, the block party comes onto the porches. I’ve moved a lot of places and I really appreciate the connectivity on the street here.
Note first that she described her neighbour as a friend, and that they are still in touch.
Many living alone today may bemoan the coldness of city culture. But perhaps, precisely the same people would have strong, warm friendships if their homes, parks, streets, businesses, and workplaces provided a context in which it felt comfortable and painless to chat with a stranger for a moment, and made it likely to see those people again. Neither a public health intervention nor the urban environment can force people to become friends or be friendly. But communities can be designed to reduce the barriers to people interacting to near zero. Considering the shocking health impacts of isolation, we urgently need to better understand the kinds of homes and communities that foster social connections. And we must build them.
By Tristan Cleveland
Photo credit: Tristan Cleveland.