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No person is an island

Isolation | Peter Stewart

Monday 6 April 2020

Living with my family in an inner London flat during the days of COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve wondered from time to time whether we would rather be elsewhere. The ‘culture’ slot of our strange new daily timetable being taken up one day with the great BBC recording of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, my thoughts turned to that writer’s cottage, which looks out over the estuary of the River Taf in south Wales. When I visited, it struck me as offering the ideal combination of isolation – the peace and quiet necessary for writing, and with gorgeous views – with the possibility of conviviality, only five minutes’ walk away in the small town of Laugharne, with its shops and, importantly for Thomas, pubs.

No person is an island

Nearly all of us want to be on our own sometimes, and seek company at other times. The more fortunate in society will likely enjoy the opportunity to choose one or the other most of the time; the less well off, not so much.

In a CABE / RIBA study in 2009, 43% per cent of fully occupied households reported that the size and layout of their homes did not allow for enough privacy - the opportunity for which is linked with mental health and wellbeing. In the days of lockdown, families in cramped flats – who in some cases will be isolated, but their members never alone - may find overcrowding harder to bear than ever.

But loneliness is just as much of a problem, and also harmful to health. Over 9 million people in the UK – almost a fifth of the population – say they are always or often lonely. The pandemic will be making things worse for them – in many cases, isolation compounding unwanted solitude.

Architects and planners are hardly key workers in the present crisis. But our job is, now as ever, to imagine a better future; and there is a lot of discussion of that at present, at least amongst those of us who prefer that to the post-apocalyptic fantasies.

Life in the post-COVID-19 world, for architects and planners, may involve reconsideration of the merits of high density living – its suitability for those with little housing choice, the importance of private outside space, the need for parks and so on.

But density numbers mean little in themselves, and residential space standards are a blunt instrument – a lot of square metres in a dumb layout do not add up to a good home, and a smart micro flat can be a delight to live in - though possibly not with several small children.

No person is an island

I enjoy high density living, and I suspect that if I was living in Dylan Thomas’s cottage, I would now be pining for inner London. But perhaps, now that even the Tories admit there is a such a thing as society, having lived together through the pandemic will help us to think harder in the future about how to design civilised places in a civilised city that avoid both overcrowding and loneliness.

Peter Stewart words and photos
The Architecture Club member