The role of civil engineering in designing out loneliness

Bryn Noble, a civil engineer at WSP and one of past ICE President Andrew Wyllie’s Future Leaders, is calling on all civil engineers to help tackle a key part of our mental and social health.

image: DBW article

… fantastic example of how a civil engineer can vastly improve the health of society…

… guidance will need to be developed by a diverse and inclusive team…

Designing Buildings Wiki writes:

I believe civil engineers have a fundamental role to play in tackling loneliness…

What’s the role of a civil engineer? Fundamentally, we improve the quality of life for society and we achieve this through a variety of mediums. Sir Winston Churchill once said, ‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.’ What he meant by this is that our personalities, our behavioural traits, our defining characteristics are absolutely a product of the built environment we live in. As civil engineers, many of our actions, the decisions we make, the solutions we implement, influence the health of society.

Learning from our superheroes

Absolutely. Let’s look to our past for a particularly strong case study, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, or as we all know him by now: Captain Sanitation. Captain Sanitation designed and built London’s sewer network, a fantastic achievement. One of the unintended consequences of this was the elimination of cholera, as well as a vast reduction in the number of epidemics in typhus and typhoid. This engineered, practical solution, vastly improved the physical health of society in London, in fact I would argue their mental health as well. Citizens were no longer dying from drinking water. The anxiety, stress and grief of potentially losing a loved one for simply drinking something that’s essential for our survival was eliminated. A fantastic example of how a civil engineer can vastly improve the health of society.

The effect of loneliness on our society

The question is, can we do this for mental and social health? Our understanding of mental and social health has developed radically. It’s been established that poor social wellbeing can cause numerous negative consequences on both our physical and mental health, to list but a few:

  • The physiological damage on the body caused by the stress of feeling lonely is as toxic as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
  • Loneliness is worse for you than obesity.
  • Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression. (Campaign to End Loneliness statistics)

The need to improve social health is clearly there. Is there an opportunity for civil engineers to help save the day?

Government’s call for action

In October 2018, the UK Government published its policy on tackling loneliness, delivered by the world’s first UK Minister for Loneliness Tracey Crouch MP. The paper called on all to tackle loneliness where they’re able to do so. Chapter 3 of this policy, ‘Community infrastructure that empowers social connections’, reiterates that practical measures to reduce social isolation can also help to tackle loneliness…

Why do we need a best practice guide on loneliness?

Loneliness is a generational issue which will take generations to combat. There’ll be no quick fix to this societal issue, but having a guide which we can continuously refer to, revise and redistribute, will enable future generations of engineers to continue the fight against loneliness..

… Wouldn’t it be fitting for the world’s first Institution of Civil Engineers, endorsed by the world’s first Minister for Loneliness, to produce the world’s first civil engineering best practice guide on tackling loneliness?

Get involved

The time for us to defend society against loneliness has arrived.…

The ICE loneliness guidance will need to be developed by a diverse and inclusive team, by anyone who wishes to tackle this societal issue. All of us have experienced loneliness to some extent. Working together and discussing our own experiences will benefit and strengthen the development of a diverse and inclusive guidance which reflects all members of our great society.

This article originally appeared on the Community Blog portion of the ICE website under the headline, ‘Civil engineering’s role in designing out loneliness’. It was written by Bryn Noble, President’s Future Leader 2018/19 and published on 11 May 2021. –Institution of Civil Engineers

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