Beating loneliness with the art of serendipitous urban design


Serendipitous design.

Sounds like a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it?

However, a recent Tedx Talk by instructional designer, Jamie Littlefield, shed some light on the way in which creative initiatives by ordinary urban citizens could indeed become catalysts for happy accidents, which in turn, may help forge fast friendships and long-lasting camaraderie between unlikely strangers.

This is, of course, hugely beneficial in any urban environment, as modern cities seem to breed a very specific kind of loneliness – something those who suffer from it would describe as constantly being surrounded by people, but never really able to connect.

“This big question started keeping me up at night,” Littlefield says, “Who is making the intentional design decisions in our cities? Who is creating the spaces for happy accidents?… [in] our yards, our streets, our neighbourhoods?”

As the question grew in her mind, Littlefield started looking for clues in her own neighbourhood … and then in cities around the globe.

“The answer became clear. Who are the city designers? You are a city designer, you are a city designer, and I am a city designer. We are the city designers!”

Going on to explain that while, of course, there are urban planners and architects, but when serendipity is created it almost always comes from regular people.

So, if you’ve been looking at your community and wishing things could be different, perhaps it’s time you became the change you want to see.

How? You may ask … Here are a couple of ideas to design urban spaces that hold untold serendipitous potential:

Book exchange

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Bibliophiles have a way of sniffing out the best deals on books, no matter where they find themselves. They also often have an awkward tendency to prefer their own company – or that of ink on paper – to that of other people. Yet, may crave the kind of connections they read about without always knowing how to make them. So, as a bibliophile yourself (because the idea to start a book exchange wouldn’t cross your mind if you weren’t), help make a space for your kindred spirits to gather by setting up an innovative book exchange along a corridor in your apartment block, on your street or in public space well-trodden by your neighbours.

It could be as simple as popping a few books from your own shelf into a box and printing out a sign inviting people to help themselves (and preferably top up with a volume of their own in exchange) … or you can put a bit more thought into it, like the cute house design outside Yours Truly in Cape Town’s very own Kloof Street (picture above).

Clothes swap

Spring-cleaned your wardrobe recently and not sure what to do with all those clothes you’ve barely worn, but no longer like? While we’d obviously suggest you donate it to a charity like The Street Store, there is room to add an extra dimension of fun to the exercise first by hosting a clothing swap. The basic idea is that each attendee will bring a bag of garments that they no longer wear, but are still in a good condition, and a process of swapping will begin. A good way to go about it is to have one person fish clothes out of bags, hold them up and all the interested parties raise their hands. Employ the age-old tactic of rock-paper-scissors to establish who gets what.

But how does this beat loneliness? Simple. Make an effort to invite people beyond your usual circle of friends – colleagues, social media acquaintances, neighbours and the like. It can get a bit chaotic, so stick to a number of guests who will comfortably fit into your home (or whichever space you’ll be using). Once all the swapping is done, there will typically be a large stack of wonderfully in tact garments left over – donate them to the charity of your choice!

Pop-up playground

If you’re a parent and new to a city neighbourhood, help your kids make new friends by creating a bad-ass pop-up playground with cardboard boxes (those you used in the move would come in handy right now) in your front yard or the communal area of your apartment building. Raise the fun levels by having colourful chalk, crayons and (if you’re brave) paint close at hand, with which the children can spontaneously help decorate their fort.

Make a seat

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Seating is something every city could have more of. While you can write to the municipality till you’re blue in the face about installing a bench in your local park, they may not be able to execute the request as quickly as desired.

So, do it yourself! Design a make-shift bench that has space for two or more people, place it in the desired spot and keep an eye on who of the neighbours it attracts. Who knows, your bench may even spark a seating revolution in your city.

Start a community storytelling event

A photo posted by Hadlay Mclean (@boo_hadlay) on

Something we all have in common is the fierce love of a well-told tale. Harness the power of stories by creating monthly/quarterly yarn-spinning events in your community. Of course, it won’t be a roaring success from the start, because people are also notoriously shy. So, kick off your initiative by asking a few friends or family members to commit to attending or telling a story or both. Then advertise your event throughout the neighbourhood (put up striking posters, share on the community Facebook group, send out an email). Keep in mind that free snacks and drinks are always a drawcard. Even if no one else attends at first, don’t lose hope! Carry on hosting your events on the intended intervals and word will eventually spread. Dream big, as they say.

Not only are storytelling events a great way to connect with and get to know your neighbours, but it’s also a fantastic method of documenting the history of your community. So, be sure to record each addition (with each storytellers’ permission, of course)

Become a guerrilla gardener

A photo posted by Nigel Grigg (@nigel.grigg) on

Identify a patch of earth in your neighbourhood that could do with some greening – it may be as small and ephemeral as planting a flower in a sidewalk pothole or something as life-changing as transforming a vacant plot of land into a garden.

As with books, a shared love of gardening makes for an immediate bond, so when green-fingered neighbours see what you’re up to, they’re bound to join. Not only will you be transforming your streets into something beautiful, but you will also be creating community. Pretty special, huh?

Give of your time

Finding somewhere to volunteer as a 9-5er can be surprisingly hard, as a lot of local charities seem geared toward attracting international exchange students who can help out during office hours. So, take matters into your own hands by identifying something useful you’re good at and set aside an hour or two a week in which you can serve your community using this talent.

Whether it be assisting the nursing home across the road with IT-related issues or giving the exhausted mom next door a well-deserved break by offering to bake cookies with her kids, your acts of kindness will not go unappreciated. Once again you can spread the word by posting in your community Facebook/Whatsapp group, sticking posters up in your apartment block or popping flyers into post boxes. Just be sure to stipulate that you are only available at specific hours, so you don’t get flooded.

Now it’s your turn – are you an avid citizen urban planner? Tell us about the initiative/s you’ve launched/been part of!

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