The theme of loneliness in a digital world keeps coming up in various articles I have recently read. Last weekend’s Globe & Mail article by Elizabeth Renzetti profiled various people who are isolated in the Global Village. While the article was somewhat unscientific and selective in choosing her stories, it seems that the modern condition of the 21st century is not the alienation of the industrial capitalism of the last 150 years, it is now about our lack of sociability in a digital age. The irony of this post-modern condition is not lost on any of us, however she did refer to the design of our cities as a consequence of our loss of community. Increasing developments of intensified city cores: the Vancouver model was noted. Renzetti writes:
Research has shown that a varied streetscape will cause people to slow down, and perhaps even exchange a smile or flirtatious glance, and that even a brief exposure to nature – cutting through a park – makes us feel more generous, and more social.
Charles Montgomery has recently examined this view of cities. The issue of varied human-scaled cities has preoccupied architects for the past 40 years, especially in Canada by architect Jack Diamond and others who came to urban design in the 1960s.
Can protecting heritage encourage sociability and reduce the unwanted loneliness felt in many highly developed nations? Perhaps. If interesting streetscapes, visual variety, dense yet low-rise buildings, meaningful historic places, roots in communities and cultural diversity are aspects of heritage, then the discussion on countering loneliness must include heritage values. The notion that social media frames people within isolated worlds may be better framed when you imagine the coffee shop in a historic building. True, the people there may be working in their own head space, but their social space is within that cafe. There may be less ennui, less sense of displacement or placelessness felt in that adaptively reused coffee shop than in many contemporary environments.
Many ‘Millenials’ live in a mediated world, determined by their links through various on-line platforms. Are they any lonelier than other generations in human history? Probably not. Are they less engaged with interpreting the world, maybe…
Heritage matters to us because of its Gestalt effect. It engages the whole, yet can focus on the particular. The challenge is to convey the importance of its effect. Loneliness in the 21st century could be a symptom of many conditions, whether the digital age, the condofication of our cores, the impact of suburban planning (though this may be debated). Faith Popcorn’s coining of the word ‘cocooning’ in the 1990s has returned now that social media is our obsession. Yet, we remain social and where best to meet but in places that are meaningful to us. It may be in a suburban plaza, a rehabilitated historic warehouse district, a large mall, a restored community centre or even as ancient as Stonehenge. All these gathering places are heritage to whoever is brought out of their cocoon and into a community.
To alleviate loneliness one need only to visit a historic place. History is identity and heritage is social.