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How Our Cities Keep Us Single (And Why That Has to Change)

In 1969, zoologist Desmond Morris released a book titled The Human Zoo; in it, he argued that human beings, tribal by nature, aren’t wired to live in the big, crowded modern-day cities we find ourselves in:

“Some people call the city a ‘concrete jungle’ — but jungles aren’t like that. Animals in jungles aren’t overcrowded. And overcrowding is the central problem of modern city life. If you want to look for crowded animals, you have to look in the zoo. And then it occurred to me: The city is not a concrete jungle — it’s a human zoo.

Humans in a city are like animals in a zoo. It’s a fascinating claim, one that led me to a rather unusual thought. 

If we take for granted Morris’ claim that the city is essentially a human zoo, and that, as we are all aware, it’s far more difficult for animals to mate in captivity, then - could cities actually limit our capacity for love? As our world becomes more and more urbanized, will it also become more lonely? 

Is there any way to stop it?

Blame the plethora of articles that have been flooding my twitter feed in honor of Valentine’s Day, but there does seem to be, at least in the collective conscious, a relationship between big cities and single-hood.

From the supposed “trend” of big city ladies looking for love in the suburbs, to The Daily Beast’s list of the Top 50 Cities for Love (assembled, not terribly scientifically, by looking at marriage/divorce rates and the quantity of bars/restaurants) to Business Insider’s recent article outlining where - statistically speaking - you’re most likely to find love (based on gender concentration), it seems that many cities just aren’t conducive to coupling.

Courtesy of Business Insider
Courtesy of Business Insider

In her article written for The Atlantic Cities, Is Your City Making You Single?”, author Amanda Hess describes her personal struggle maintaining a relationship in sprawled Los Angeles, when it had all been so easy in Washington D.C. Her question is: why?  

Well, to start, size. In the article, Hess looks to her New Yorker friends for possible answers. One tells her: “‘subway distances can make things grueling,” meaning that budding romances easily die on a stalled L train. (How much subway time are you willing to invest in one date, when every platform appears teeming with other options?).” Another friend notes that, thanks to the size of New York (and the anonymity size affords you), “the city’s geography is ‘more conducive to breakups.’”

Of course, you could claim that New Yorkers are just a cold-hearted bunch who simply prioritize money or work over love... and yet there is one spot in New York that breaks the mold. In his TEDTalk, co-founder of The High Line, Robert Hammond, shared his observation of the elevated park’s affect on people: 

“I realized right after we opened that there were all these people holding hands on the High Line. And I realized New Yorkers don’t hold hands; we just don’t do that outside. But you see that happening on the High Line, and I think that’s the power that public space can have to transform how people experience their city and interact with each other.”

Interestingly, Hess’s and Hammond’s accounts make perfect sense in the light of Morris’ zoological theory of human beings. 

According to Morris,  humans evolved to live in tribal groups of no more than 150 inhabitants; the modern-day city-dweller just cannot conceptualize, nor emotionally relate to more people than that, and so disassociates from his fellow-man, seeing them as part of the landscape rather than as part of “the tribe.” 

Before you roll your eyes, consider: how many people in distress - homeless, injured, or otherwise - do you pass everyday on the city streets? People you would surely help in different, more intimate situations? Morris’ point is just that: the city is an un-natural environment, one which makes it difficult for us to form social bonds. 

Morris goes on to explain that as humans, we feel much more comfortable in smaller, contained spaces where we can interact with people like ourselves. He claims that boundaries - be they obvious, like a fence, or subtle, like the edges of a picnic mat - allow us to relax, and connect to others. Also key, according to Morris’ theory, is that we don’t feel crowded and stressed in these spaces. 

Seen in this light, is it any wonder that Washington D.C., a compact city full of demarcated neighborhoods and green, open spaces is, in Hess’ words, “for nesters”? Or that the green, contained space of the High Line,  located in the crowded epitome of an urban environment, becomes one of the few places where New Yorkers can actually connect and hold hands? 

Philip A. and Lisa Maria Falcone Flyover, the pathway rises eight feet above the High Line, winding through a canopy of trees, between West 25th and West 27th Street, looking South. ©Iwan Baan
Philip A. and Lisa Maria Falcone Flyover, the pathway rises eight feet above the High Line, winding through a canopy of trees, between West 25th and West 27th Street, looking South. ©Iwan Baan

What’s fascinating to me, though, is that the description of a city designed for love - compact, walkable, with green, open spaces, and distinct neighborhoods (where people of a feather can flock, according to their tastes), is exactly the definition of a “healthy” modern city, where communities can thrive. 

A city designed for love isn’t sprawled out and un-manageable, but compact and accessible; it isn’t over-crowded and stressful, but open and green; it’s not anonymous and cold, but familiar and community-oriented. A city designed for love is no human zoo, but a human playground, where we can breathe freely and relate to each other on a human level.

As our world becomes more urbanized and our cities ever larger, we must make sure not just to design cities we will love, but cities that will allow us to love each other. In the end, it’s all just the same thing. 

Cite:Vanessa Quirk. "How Our Cities Keep Us Single (And Why That Has to Change)" 14 Feb 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>