On the downtown sidewalks of any major city in Canada, condo sandwich boards sell the promise of a youthful, giddy existence filled with cocktails and parks and heads thrown back in Muppet-style laughter. At the top of my street in Toronto, I can count three of these boards with their earnest names market researched to meaninglessness (I think one is called Placenta), all pitching images of a home that will provide a perfectly balanced hybrid of solitude and togetherness in a neighbourhood of green space and nightclubs.
Spring saw a surge in condominium building across Canada,with overall construction starts at their highest since September2007. Condo ads seem inured to murmurs of an inflated, close-to-collapsing market and singles are their target – for good reason.
More people live alone now than at any time in history, according to Eric Klinenberg’s seminal study of the single life, Going Solo.
We’re living alone because we can afford to. In Canada, single people make up one in four households,the 2006 census showed.
China, India and Brazil, three of the fastest-growing economies,are also home to some of the fastest-growing singleton populations.
But does being alone necessarily mean being lonely? Not with the right urban design, according to a new Australian study called Social Cities. Researchers at the Grattan Institute explored how cities can either facilitate or thwart social connection,depending on how well they’re organized. Sociability has proven key to both physical and mental well-being (socially connected people may even live longer) and design that doesn’t serve that primal need can foment isolation and depression.
Of course, isolation and depression feed a long-held image of city living, one that’s lingered since the great migration from rural to urban life began in the19th century. In pop culture,the gritty Dickensian city has morphed into a lonely, work-obsessed place where urbanites are cut off from one another in their grim apartments. (Furthering the bad optics: In Vancouver, the condos leak. In Toronto, their glass balconies fall to the streets below.)
In most societies, the family unit is still the main building block; there has also long been something morally suspect about a person who dares to live solo.
When rooming and boardinghouses were becoming popular in the early 20th century, Klinenberg writes, “a well-known Protestant minister warned that the rooming house system was ‘stretching out its arms like an octopus to catch the unwary soul.’ ”
I feel that octopus’s tentacles when my rural relatives ask, “How can you stand it in Toronto?
Isn’t it lonely?” City dwellers are still often viewed as together but apart, scraping by in crime-ridden,alienating metropolises that provide the setting for cop procedurals. If corpses aren’t washing up, then citizens are oozing privileged angst, like the whiners on Sex and the City, now refashioned as Girls.
But the city in pop culture is also the romantic and mythic site of liberation – the place that Girls (and boys like Fitzgerald and Hemingway) go to find themselves.
In the city, one can shed the shackles of family, choosing emotional bonds over biological ones.
This more loving image of city life – one cleverly sold on the condo sandwich boards – isn’t wrong, it turns out: Singles aren’t so lonely after all. As Klinenberg points out, single people are likely to spend more time with others than their married counterparts; they’re the community activists, the hobbyists and the ones going to lectures. A single life is a social life.
A few neighbourhoods south of where I live, a newer development, built over the past decade, houses thousands of new condo units. Factories have become lofts; towers hover. As a result,the big park by my house strains under sheer volume on weekends: Garbage cans overflow, every inch of grass is crushed with guitars and ultimate games.
This is fine, but the young condo citizens are playing far from where they live, making me wonder if it’s because there are fewer options for togetherness in the new neighbourhoods.
People like to be around people, and the Australian study noted that many simple design gestures can bring us in contact with one another. Better transit means less commuting and more socializing. “Pocket parks” (neglected pieces of land turned green) bring us together. Socialcities include “allowed-to-be” spaces, where people feel welcome to simply “be,” sitting and talking on benches, curbs and steps or at tables and chairs that aren’t part of a business. And people gravitate to the edges of public spaces to get a full view of the action, so that’s where seating needs to be.
But these well-advertised condos can seem like spaceships dropped from the sky, bringing with them pre-fab neighbourhoods that prioritize strip malls and parking lots over public spaces. It is still possible to get cut off, to be alone in a glass tower, especially for the elderly or less mobile. The sandwich boards sell an ideal of urban camaraderie, but can the city achieve it?
Follow Katrina Onstad on Twitter: @katrinaonstad