With half of the U.S. population age 12 and older now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, it seems that the end of one pandemic is within sight. Yet, another invisible but deadly force continues to ravage American society.
Perpetuated by a culture of rugged individualism and capitalism’s prioritization of work above all else, loneliness reached epidemic proportions long before the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A recent study reported that three in five U.S. residents experience loneliness, a 13% rise since 2018. The pandemic brought increased isolation, food and income insecurity and difficulty balancing work and child care.
Still, many of us endured the pandemic from within single-family homes, the quintessential yet, for many, increasingly unattainable symbol of the American Dream.
Our desire to connect persisted despite necessary physical distancing. We explored communal living, formed mutual aid networks and displayed immense creativity in designing safe gatherings. The walk became the new happy hour, lawns became movie theaters and the front porch had a major comeback.
Perhaps the pandemic was an invitation to examine our societal dreams, and build something that can better support humans in crisis.
In 2020, we witnessed a rise in “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs), additional living units within or attached to single-family residences. Converted basements and garages allowed families to live close to one another amidst a crisis, combating isolation, keeping older parents out of nursing homes and providing desperately needed support for parents balancing work and childcare.
In a seminal article, commentator David Brooks writes that the nuclear family was a mistake to begin with, leaving us vulnerable under the visage of self-sufficiency and perpetuating a cycle of individualism, isolation and inequity.
As the definition of the family unit evolves, we are beginning to create space in both our hearts and our homes for aging parents, aunties, and “framily.” From child care to a diverse representation of morality, we are learning that the critical elements of childrearing are born from the village, not the 2.58-person bubble.
It’s not just our homes that require transformation. Experts speculate that the COVID-19 pandemic will be seen as the end of the office.
Those of us with traditional desk jobs have moved home and shown both ourselves and our bosses that we can maintain productivity while working in sweatpants. The grind of hurried mornings with kids, a mind-numbing commute, and fluorescent lighting is a machine that few hope to rebuild.
A report on the “Future of Work” projected that the workplace will continue to rely on artificial intelligence and digital integration, further eroding a key bulwark against loneliness.
This, coupled with an increasingly remote workforce, signals a crisis of meaning and connection that can only be addressed by creating space for humans to be in the presence of other humans. Neighborhoods and communities will be poised to replace the water cooler as our main source of human interaction.
As it stands, our neighborhoods are not the hubs of connection and mutuality that they once were. The present design of residential communities positions vehicles and privacy at the center, and face-to-face interaction as an inconvenience to be avoided.
Only a quarter of Americans say they know most of their neighbors or have face-to-face conversations with them. And yet, we know that the simple act of borrowing a cup of sugar from the house next door can increase our social capital, civic engagement and make us less lonely. Borrowing from our neighbors not only improves our individual wellbeing; it also strengthens democracy.
White supremacy and capitalism dissolve community by design, so in order to carve out corners of society where collectivism is the norm, we must fight battles big and small.
In Denver and beyond, committed groups of activists are shifting local legislation pertaining to zoning, ADUs and the number of unrelated people that can share a roof. Legal barriers greatly hinder our ability to create human-centered spaces and changes in local laws are small but critical wins for the collective housing movement.
Around the country, residents are infusing the principles of communal living into traditional neighborhoods; creating micro-villages by sharing their time, space and resources.
The village of the future is taking shape before our eyes. Guided by the lessons of this pandemic, we can shape our homes and neighborhoods to withstand the next inevitable crisis.
They can be spaces where human beings and the planet are honored and not exploited, where proximity is a catalyst for intergenerational connection and mutual support and where humans are valued not for what they produce but simply for being human.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us what is possible when we focus our collective attention, wisdom and budgets on solving a single problem. Imagine the possibilities.
Trish Becker is the director of community engagement at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.
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