What’s the world’s loneliest city?

What’s the world’s loneliest city?

In Tokyo, you can rent a snuggle. Loneliness is a health issue in Manchester. And perhaps nobody is as isolated as a migrant worker in Shenzhen. But can we really know what makes a city lonely?

New York has a trip-hammer vitality which drives you insane with restlessness, if you have no inner stabiliser, wrote Henry Miller after moving back to the city following almost a decade in Paris. It could be expected that the Brooklyn-born novelist would have been happy to return, yet something didnt sit right:

In New York I have always felt lonely, the loneliness of the caged animal, which brings on crime, sex, alcohol and other madnesses. Miller didnt hurt for friends or charm he was married five times but he saw himself as an outsider, forever and ever the ridiculous human, the lonely soul, and it was his hometown that brings with it this fever of loneliness.

Could Millers terms be evidence that New York where countless people have gone to find fame, work, love and even themselves is the loneliest city in the world? Or is it possible that the person or persons , not the place, is the root cause of Millers discontent? And if so, whatisthe loneliest city?

Urban life is more stressful than rural life, but whether its lonelier is a point of debate among social scientists. A 2016 report by Age UK noted there are higher incidences of loneliness in cities, but precisely what brings it on is surprising. The same report found that gender and education are largely irrelevant except for those with the highest level of education, who are often lonelier and that household income and caring for a pet also have little effect.

Isolation is one of the biggest problems faced by Vancouver residents. Photograph: Ben Nelms/ Reuters

So what impacts loneliness, and how does that play out in cities? The sizing of a household inversely affects how “youre feeling”: the smaller the household, the more lonely it tends to be. And people who rent or own a home are lonelier than those with a mortgage, perhaps because cities with lots of renters such as London, which is expected to have 60% of residents renting by 2025 have greater transience, and potentially lower community involvement. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have rental figures hovering in the mid-5 0s. Renters predominate in German cities, too a long-term trend attributed to low rents and housing policies, but one that may end up influencing neighbourhood engagement.

One thing is certain: percentages per of those who live alone has increased dramatically. In the US, 27% of people live alone, up from 5% in 1920, and in New York City its roughly one third. The same trend is evident in Canada, and even more pronounced in Europe 58% of people in Stockholm live alone, a figure that is considered the highest in Europe. In many cities, the trend is here to stay. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that there will be 1.3 m more single-occupancy households by 2025, a jump of roughly 60%, and one that could mob major cities and affect access to affordable housing.

Obscured by those figures, however, is the assumption that living alone leads to loneliness two things the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo, says are often conflated. In fact, theres little evidence that the rise of living alone is responsible for attaining us lonely, he wrote in 2012. Research shows that its the quality , not the quantity of social interactions that best predicts loneliness. What matters is not whether we live alone, but whether we feel alone.

The demographic that most reports feeling lonely are older people, and they do often live alone. In Stockholm, 35% of people over the age of 75 experienced loneliness, while in Bristol 10 -1 5% reported the same.( Hence the slogan Bristol: a brilliant place to grow old .) Older people are likely to be more lonely in cities, especially if they are poorer, have physical or mental health the questions or live in underprivileged areas.

Campaign to End Loneliness suggested that 7% of older people in the UK are lonely, while age researcher Thomas Scharf determined that 16% of older people in deprived neighborhoods in English cities were severely lonely. Manchester fared worse than Liverpool or London, which may explain why it is treating loneliness as an urban health issue: it made the Valuing Older People programme in 2003 to address, among other issues, loneliness and isolation. Similar projects have leapt up in other cities which recognise that loneliness runs tandem to issues such as segregation, housing, healthcare, and isolation among seniors and others vulnerable citizens.

The networks of migrant workers in China might help to stifle isolation, but living and working conditions can be difficult. Photo: Andy Wong/ AP

But its not only older people who suffer from isolation. In Australia, city dwellers have fewer friends than they did two decades ago. In the US, a troubling one in five people said they had only one close friend. Or consider idyllic-looking Vancouver, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, which struggles not only with affordability( it was recently crowned the most expensive city in Northern america ), but also with friendliness.

The Vancouver Foundation thinktank asked community leaders and charities to identify the biggest issues facing Vancouverites and were told it wasnt homelessness or poverty; it was isolation. Of 4,000 people from 80 -odd ethnic groups who were polled, one third of respondents find it hard to make friends something I discovered firsthand when I expended a rainy, grey winter working in Vancouver, straying Stanley Park alone with my dog at weekends and sitting in crowded cafe by myself. In this young, diverse city, the newly arrived conflict most: among people who had been in Canada for five years or less, nearly half( 42%) had just two close friends.

A dearth of friendship doesnt afflict merely recent immigrants. Many Tokyoites long for friends so dearly that theyre willing to hire them. American writer Chris Colin, intrigued by Japanese affection for hire industries such as cuddle cafes and cat rentals, spent time with a service that offer temporary friends. The clientele was differed, he wrote: widowers, shy single kinds, that one dude who just wanted a friend whod do him the solid of waiting seven hours outside Nike to snag these fresh sneakers for him when they went on sale. The largest of the rent-a-friend bureaux, Client Partner, has eight branches in Tokyo alone.

Japanese cat cafe have become popular with people living in urban areas, as has the idea of affection for hire. Photo: Junko Kimura/ Getty Images

Across the Sea of Japan, theres a different problem: large-scale migration. As rural Chinese move to big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, they encounter isolation on an epic level. As of 2012, a staggering 230 million people had migrated from the countryside to cities.( More than half the countrys population now live in cities, up from one one-third in 1990.) Known as the floating population, they can find themselves in low-quality, high-density housing, subject to discrimination and at risk of low social participation, especially if they move frequently.

Researchers surveyed Chinese reports on community social networks, neighborhood attachments and marginality and determined that migrants were more neighbourly which may help them counteract isolation but faced discrimination and, in some cases, grim living conditions: one corporation in the factory city Shenzhen homes more than 200,000 employees in dormitories, which theres been an epidemic of suicides. The report noted: The neighborhood for them is likely to be the factory. Yet in Beijing migrants had greater neighbouring intensity in other words, theyre better at connecting with their community suggesting that migrants may bring much-needed village values to the lonely urban jungle.

If life in Chinas megacities shows anything, it might be that loneliness is often due to situation. This wouldnt surprise Olivia Laing whose new volume, The Lonely City, chronicles a post-breakup stint in New York.The thing with cities is we are absolutely surrounded by people, Laing lately told the Globe and Mail. We can see other people living richer, more populated lives than our own. At the same hour, we can feel very exposed there are lots of eyes on everyone. That is why the loneliness of the city has a particularly distinct tang to it. Loneliness, however, is often like bad weather, it passes through our lives.

So are people in Shanghai or Berlin more solitary than those in Stockholm or Vancouver? I put the question to one of the fields resulting researchers, the University of Chicagos John Cacioppo, who wrote the book, Loneliness. His research disputes the idea that urban life is inherently lonelier than rural life, and he declined to play favourites and picking simply one city. You create an interesting question, he says. Unfortunately, we have no data with which to address it. Perhaps Laing is right that urban loneliness is ephemeral. Or perhaps we can learn from Henry Millers struggle with New York; in 1944, he packed his suitcases and moved to sunny Big Sur, California.

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