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

BIG’s 2012 Valentine’s Day installation in New York City. Image © Ho Kyung Lee

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

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.”

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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

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: Quirk, Vanessa. "How Our Cities Keep Us Single (And Why That Has to Change)" 14 Feb 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=331816>
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  • Anders Drescher

    Provided one seeks a human partner I would say chances finding love are better in the city than in the woods.

    • Alex F

      Agreed. But it’d be more accurate to say that a city makes it easier to find a MATING/SEXUAL partner, not monogamic-romantic love (which I think is a cultural construct). The city gives you too many options, making it harder to just settle down with one partner. That’s why the zoo analogy in the article doesn’t work, there might be more single people in big cities but there’s much more sex going on.
      Still, the main idea of poor-quality social connections in urban enviroments is the real issue here and should be discussed in further detail.

  • Tosh

    I find it so rubbish when authors simplify everything to “we are all animals and we are instinctual and we can’t think”…. Why not think about things as they are instead of looking for a metaphor that confuses things furthermore..

  • Farid Apandi

    No wonder people living in the jungles tend to have more kids despite the absence of modern trappings!

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  • hotcommodity

    More likely people find each other in cities and then move to suburbs.

  • martin silesian

    wow amazing story about High Line on TED

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  • Eran

    It’s look to me, that the fundamental saying “Animals in jungles aren’t overcrowded” isn’t right. in a single tree in the jungle there are millions of tipes (not details) of insects. the jungle is overcrowded. it is the most rich and varied habitat in the planet.
    and I totally agree with Alex F.

  • Elliot

    This article is the reason the word “dilettante” was invented. Stay out of the sociology/social anthropology realm, much less architecture, unless you plan on doing far more responsible research than you did here. When people make up these ridiculous theories based on 60 year old ideas about human partnering, we end up with things like eugenics and phrenology – and then what’s worse, sociopaths in government act on them.

  • JM

    I think you’ve got it backwards. You’re attributing the cause to the effect and vice versa. Cities have more singles because they draw more young people who are single, more secularists – some of whom don’t see partnering as a spiritual necessity, more LGBTs who can’t get married and therefore feel ostracized from society and thus have less interest in society’s preference for monogamy, and a whole other host of things, quite frankly. Cities draw singles to them – it’s a perfectly natural state of being. It’s just not accepted in Christian rural America, so people flee to urban areas to feel more comfortable. Please don’t radically redesign cities so as to alienate these people further – your traditional ideas about coupling have already done that to about 95% of the cities in our country. We know what places obsessed with coupling look like already, and many of us don’t really like it. Leave the big cities alone. Some people like Los Angeles the way it is in terms of density/layout. Some like New York. And so they move to those places for their own reasons, and stay or go for their own reasons. Let them be what they are, and leave some of these ideas about relationships from the middle of the 20th Century where they belong – in the distant past.

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