Promoting Social Connections

Designing welcoming and comfortable spaces can boost a sense of belonging, community and trust.

Loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions in the U.S. Even before the COVID pandemic, one in two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness and a sense of isolation, according to a recent report from the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.

The consequences of “a society that lacks social connection” can be felt in schools, workplaces and civic organizations, in the form of diminished performance, productivity and engagement, the report concludes. As a health issue, loneliness is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death.

“Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity, and an obligation to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis,” the surgeon general, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, wrote in the report.

The built environment and design play a key role in developing social connections and combating problems of isolation and disconnection, the report notes. Workplaces, schools, libraries and civic spaces can be designed to foster a sense of inclusion and connection.

“Belonging is a fundamental human need,” says Kimari Phillips, research manager with LPA’s Sustainability and Applied Research team. “Understanding the harmful effects of loneliness and isolation can inspire design decisions that lead to increased social connection and provide long-term benefits for individuals and communities.”

On every project, LPA designers develop goals around wellness, community and experience. To help inform design decisions that support mental health, Phillips has been researching design elements that can help combat social isolation and cultivate a sense of belonging.

Three areas of research around building social connections include:

Welcoming Spaces
Comfortable, human-scale spaces and easy wayfinding can all help people feel connected to the place and the people around them. “Logically organized spaces, convenient amenities and a variety of furniture arrangements bring people together and invite opportunities for people to ‘hang out’ together,” Phillips says.

Having a variety of spaces enhances occupant experiences and allows people to choose whether and where they are comfortable engaging with others. People generally need a combination of sociopetal spaces, designed to bring people together, and sociofugal spaces, which allow minimal interactions with others, studies suggest. Spaces that facilitate social interaction and cooperative activities include inviting common areas like lounges, courtyards, student unions, shared kitchens and flexible outdoor seating areas.

“Humans instinctively look for places that present us with opportunities and make us feel safe,” Phillips says. Opportunities are provided by places with good prospects, like those with expansive views, potential for activity or a chance to explore; places of refuge provide a sense of protection and safety, like a bench or a secluded deck.

Social Connections 1

Connections to Nature
Studies consistently reinforce the mental, physical and social benefits of time spent outdoors. Common areas with shade trees invite people to “come outside, make a place for themselves, and get to know their neighbors,” California State Polytechnic University, Pomona assistant professor Claire Latané wrote in Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind (Island Press). The more trees there are and the closer the trees are, the more people will gather beneath them and the safer the neighborhood, she notes.

Different-sized outdoor gathering spaces, artwork and interactive installations, walking paths, variances in landscape, nature-inspired material choices and a mix of seating options encourage spontaneous interactions and places for people to sit (or move), relax and interact.


Research is increasingly focusing on community design that promotes and supports mental health and well-being. “Resilient cities will be those that invest in the prevention of mental ill health by taking advantage of the built environment,” Jenny Roe and Layla McCay write in Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Wellbeing (Bloomsbury).

Placemaking around public facilities can play a large role in making people feel safe and a part of the community. “A great public space is also a sociable place,” Project for Public Spaces notes in How to Turn a Place Around: A Placemaking Handbook. Public spaces create common ground for people to “meet, build trust, create a vision, and get things done together.”

Creating human-scale, activating spaces and including a breadth of user groups in the design process fosters a sense of ownership and belonging, makes people feel valued and part of something bigger than themselves, and ensures their diverse needs are met by the design.

The global loneliness problem is getting worse. From 1972 to 2016, the number of Americans who felt they could reliably trust each other has fallen from 45% to 30%, the surgeon general reports. The advisory calls on communities to “invest in local institutions that bring people together.”

“Designing the built environment to promote social connection is an important part of our national strategy to address the loneliness epidemic,” Phillips says. “Social connection is the remedy for loneliness, and we have the opportunity now to make a positive public health impact by designing spaces that encourage people to come together, interact more and feel a sense of belonging.”

“Designing the built environment to promote social connection is an important part of a national strategy to address the public health crisis of loneliness and isolation,” Phillips says. “We can help design physical spaces that make people feel a deep connection with social groups and enrich individual and collective experiences.”