Exploring the Relationship between the Built Environment and Social Isolation and Loneliness: Implications for Public Policy

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This work was one of the 2018 Ron de Burger Student Award winners. 

Author: Amber Gillespie, University of Guelph, Master of Public Health


  • Social isolation and loneliness is a significant predictor of adverse physical and mental health outcomes
  • Though our knowledge of the contextual factors contributing to social isolation and loneliness in Western  culture is increasing, one area found to be lacking in knowledge, policy, and action is the effects of the built environment


  • Through the application of a social ecological lens as well as several practice tools developed for Canadian public health professionals, a semi-systematic review of the literature was conducted to answer the research question ‘What is the association between the built environment and loneliness and social isolation?’
  • Utilizing a synthesis matrix, 71 articles were reviewed and organized by built environment theme and was identified as falling within one or more social ecological category


  • The predominant built environment themes found include the home, supported housing, the workplace, greater rural and urban communities, and built community services
  • Within these built environments, a variety of populations and sub-populations were found within the research including older and working-class adults, those with mental and physical disabilities, and youth and adolescents
  • In consideration of the intersection between the built environment and population explored, the findings of this review reveal that research within each environment has a propensity to focus on a predominant social ecological level


  • It is not our built environment that results in social isolation and loneliness, but rather it is the unintended inequities created within our environments that result from how the environment is built
  • Without consideration of the challenges faced by populations to adapt or control their environment, the fight to reduce social isolation and loneliness, and its association health consequences, will continue to endure.
  • The results of this review also highlight a number of gaps in our understanding of the effect of the built environment on social isolation and loneliness including a lack of evidence-based strategies to reduce or mitigate risk and of specific populations including the disenfranchised (e.g. those affected by homelessness and/or addiction) and of specific cultural and ethnic backgrounds (e.g. Aboriginal and First Nations groups).


  • The association between the built environment and social isolation and loneliness requires more than an understanding of the contributory contextual factors
  • To improve social connectedness, we must work to not only ensure that our environment is as equitable and accessible as possible to those within it, but we must also make concerted efforts to develop strategies to improve social connectedness through the built environment

The full report is available below.

Publication Date Aug 17, 2018
Posted by NCCEH Aug 16, 2018