Finding connections in a city the size of London can be tough. With a population of over 8 million, it doesn’t feel like we’re alone much. We’re constantly accidentally (usually) elbowing each other as we tussle for space on the underground, hanging out in busy pubs and restaurants, and seeing the same people every day at work.

But occupying the same space as lots of people isn’t the same as interacting with them, and according to studies including Time Out’s City Index Survey, London can be a pretty lonely place to be. Loneliness among older people has been well documented for a long time, but in the past few years it’s become more common among 16 to 24 year olds.

london lonliness community projects
Photo by FoodCycle 2017

Why London can be a lonely city

There are lots of factors contributing to a sense of loneliness in the city. Unemployment is a big factor, and around 29% of Londoners say they’ve met most their current friends through work. Being new to London can be challenging and overwhelming too, even more so if you’re living alone or renting a place with no real communal areas. Others stay home a lot because of home-working, child care, caring responsibilities and health reasons. Its a recurring theme on the r/London reddit too, which is a community with over 160,000 people.

Loneliness is a big enough issue that local authorities and even the Prime Minister are taking it more seriously as a public health concern, not just in London but across the UK. Rightly so, research suggests loneliness can negatively impact mental and physical health—it can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Campaign to End Loneliness, 2016).

City-wide projects and groups in London

While the stats seem bleak, the outlook doesn’t have to be. More and more groups are taking positive action, bringing Londoners together across different generations and backgrounds.

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From local borough councils and city-wide collectives to more grassroots neighbourhood projects: people are working hard to makes London less lonely. Of course, there is a lot of hard graft involved, but there’s also a lot of fun to be had by bringing people together across the city.

A multi-national construction company and non-profit action group might not be an obvious partnership, but in October 2018 Lendlease and Collectively launched The Loneliness Lab.

It’s one of the bigger initiatives in the city, created as an 18-month-long project involving artists, NGOs, designers, community groups and local authorities with pilot projects being developed across London in 2019. One of the core ideas is to re-think and redesign place and space to encourage communal experience.

So far, ideas trialled have included transforming a declining market into a ‘Public Lounge’ and handing out free craft kits on public transport to encourage interaction in what is arguably London’s least-sociable shared space.

You can connect people with lots of small changes, or with one simple idea. For the charity FoodCycle, it’s all about bringing people together to cook eat and chat. It’s been running across the UK as well as several London boroughs since 2009. Volunteers cook meals made from ingredients which would otherwise go to waste. In the past ten years, they’ve served 1 million meals to their guests.

“We started because we thought that it didn’t make any sense that so much perfectly good food is being thrown away every day, yet people are going hungry or feeling isolated—when they could be sitting down and sharing a healthy free meal with each other, and meeting new people. I love what we have achieved and are achieving—by using food waste, we bring people together feeding bellies not bins, but also impacting on loneliness and growing real friendships amongst our guests.” explains Sophie Tebbits, Head of Programmes.

FoodCycle has four main aims: to strengthen communities by facilitating healthy, shared meals; tackling loneliness by creating inclusive spaces; reducing hunger and poor nutrition; and shifting attitudes toward food waste.

Guest at FoodCycle, Lewisham | Photo by FoodCycle 2017

According to Sophie, FoodCycle surveys shows joining the meals has a positive effect on guests and volunteers alike. “From our guests surveys we know that 71% of our guests feel lonely, however after coming to a FoodCycle meal 77% of our guests state that they have made new friends and 79% feel more part of their local community, which is something we are very proud of. And it’s not just our guests who benefit, 83% of our volunteers told us that volunteering was a good place to meet new people and make friends.”

Volunteering, in general, is a good way to combat loneliness, as suggested by Mind and other organisations. Not sure where to start? The Team London website lets you filter by interest/borough/skillset/etc. covering anything from driving, to tutoring, skill sharing, mentoring and a whole lot more. If you don’t have tonnes of spare time or can’t make a long-term commitment then there’s always speed mentoring.

From URL to IRL: taking connections offline

Although we’re all collectively hiding behind screens more, technology can still work to combat isolation. There are several Meetup groups set up to help Londoners meet each other. Students at 23 Code Street decided to use their coding skills to help older and younger generations of Londoners to connect IRL. For their graduation project, Tiah Harrison and her fellow students developed an app called Generation Meet. At the time of their course, winter was on the way, when people naturally stay in more, so they decided to make something to address isolation.

“One of the problems was trying to tie down who should be the target audience. It’s more widely known that the elderly experience loneliness, but they aren’t the only ones. We didn’t want to just tailor the website to the elderly, but to anyone who felt loneliness. However, trying to tailor a website and make it accessible for all is difficult. It was trying to make the website attractive to everyone, but accessible at the same time.” Tiah Harrison, Generation Meet.

It’s early days, but in its current iteration, Generation Meet connects users with telephone and face-to-face befriending services where times are scheduled for an older person and their volunteer befriendee to talk or meet up and is user-testing for its meet-up data, where users tap in their postcode to find events on in their local area. That could be anything from knitting and wine tasting to gardening. The data the user punches in finds local meetups in their area.

Local community projects

Some projects are borough or neighbourhood focused. In east London, Everyone, Everyday is a network of hundreds of people in the Barking and Dagenham area working on different projects. It runs three pop-up shops. But they don’t sell things. Instead, they’re geared towards practical and useful activities from money-saving tips and skills sharing to informal creche (where parents take turns to look after the children) and collaborative business working.

Bridging the old north vs south London rivalry is North London Cares and South London Cares registered charity that not only shows that there are nice people on both sides of the river (of course there are!). The Cares community networks connect older and younger generations through social clubs involving anything from dancing to podcasting and games nights, as well as befriending and local outreach schemes.

In west London, Action West London is a registered charity and social enterprise focused on some of the root causes of loneliness. Its key objectives are to help people with securing employment, education and self-employment/business opportunities.

How to start your own community group

If there isn’t a project or group in your area, and you want to get one going, start by taking a look at the results and insights of existing organisations.

The Participatory City Foundation (who worked in partnership with Barking and Dagenham to launch Everyone, Everyday) outlined a set of common principles for a successful community project. They include:

  • No or low cost with a low time commitment
  • Simple and straightforward
  • Many opportunities with a wide variety
  • Create an inclusive culture
  • 100% open—no stigma

FoodCycle are also always on the lookout for new opportunities, and new areas to expand to. In the meantime, Sophie Tebbits advises asking the community what they would like in the first instance, then get as many different people involved as possible to generate ideas and be open to feedback.

Whether it’s leading or joining a community project, offering our time and skills, or chewing the fat over a hot meal, most of us Londoners are just trying to find common ground, and there’s plenty of it about.

Further reading: 5 Community Cafes in London for Bringing People Together

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