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The City of Verona, Italy, has presented S.T.E.P.S. (Shared Time Enhances People Solidarity) at an expert workshop organised by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission within a pilot project to monitor loneliness in Europe. STEPS is working on effective local and community-based strategies to address and reduce loneliness seen as a factor which concerns key aspects of life: material conditions, quality of life, sustainability of living.

“Loneliness is not a recent issue. It is a part of the human condition; what is changing now is that we are taking note of the absence of policy focus on this challenge.”[1]

With a pilot project to monitor loneliness in Europe the European Commission DG Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion has been drawing the attention on loneliness, with an EU-wide data collection and the development of a web platform to analyse loneliness over time and across Europe. Loneliness interventions and their effectiveness are one focus area.

The City of Verona, Italy, within the UIA project S.T.E.P.S. (Shared Time Enhances People Solidarity) is working on effective local and community-based strategies to address and reduce loneliness seen as a factor which concerns key aspects of life: material conditions, quality of life, sustainability of living.

Verona has contributed with STEPS to an expert workshop organised by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (JRC) representing a community-based intervention. The workshop is a part of the European pilot project monitoring loneliness with a particular focus on the exchange between academics, practitioners, and policymakers[2]. The aim of the workshop was to present the European Commission’s findings on loneliness interventions and to see what policymakers, countries, cities and municipalities, organisations and communities can do to prevent and mitigate loneliness. A further objective is to build a network of intervention experts.

Monitoring loneliness in Europe

A literature review on the effectiveness of interventions tackling loneliness assessed available evidence from 37 systematic reviews and meta-analyses[3]. The main finding was that most interventions reported reductions in loneliness, as one of the co-authors, prof Susanne Buecker from the German Sport University, Cologne summarised. Most of them focused on individual and relationship-level interventions. Ms Buecker stressed the evidence gap that less was found about the effectiveness of interventions at community or societal level, presumably since some of them, possibly community level programmes are not evaluated and do not appear in the search for such academic reviews. Elizabeth Casabianca and Minna Nurminnen, socio-economic analysts at the JRC, reported about the expert interviews conducted and the mapping of loneliness interventions on the base of a web-based desk research. They developed an online repository with a collection of loneliness interventions in the EU-27 which is available in a beta version and not exhaustive[4].

The STEPS activities in Verona

From the municipal practice perspective, Chiara Maccacaro, project manager of STEPS at the European Policies Office of the City of Verona, presented this future-oriented project demonstrating how strategic and integrated local interventions can tackle the impact on everyday life of the demographic and social transformation in a visible and concrete way. The area of interest is the 3rd district of the City of Verona with 60,000 inhabitants, the biggest district in terms of population, representative in demographic terms, especially for the increasing single-member households, a lower average family size, increasing life expectancy and the rate of elderly people.

The STEPS approach is based on an innovative and cross-cutting stakeholder mix for stronger local co-operation and co-production of an open and inviting environment. The Municipality of Verona (lead) is working together with partners from the research and development fields, social entrepreneurs, and cooperatives, some of them already based in the territory. Most important in all activities is the direct contact and involvement of the community to be activated.

The main activities of STEPS cover a broad range of interventions:

  •  Assuming that loneliness can be perceived across all ages and groups a so-called “Levels of Loneliness Index” (LoLix) has been elaborated with the intention to measure quality of life and to benchmark the effectiveness of community-based interventions. The City of Verona launched a survey in the district to collect household-level data in three dimensions: economic (income, employment, living conditions etc.), socio-relational (time use, everyday organisation, social relations and activities etc.) and psycho-physical (health status, quality of life, personality traits etc.).
  •  An important intervention is the integration of physical spaces, like the recovery of unused urban places and spaces for encounter in the neighbourhood, i.e. neglected green areas and common ground floor spaces of big residential complexes as anchor points of new sociability and economy. The former Casa colonica, a protected historic rural building, is going to be restored to become such an open place of social aggregation in the Saval neighbourhood.
  •  A number of “STEPSpoints” have been opened targeting loneliness in the community space distributed among the neighbourhoods in the district: Cooperatives and social entrepreneurs have installed low-threshold social laboratories with different profiles and free-access social offers and services, including a community bank, a FabRepair Café based on circular economy practices, information and consultancy on job hunting, personal financial management, bureaucratic issues, etc[5].
  •  Several community-based interventions intend to activate the citizens in the district with public consultations on which spaces should be converted and how. This strengthens the relationships between peers and neighbours, the intergenerational contact and social integration creating a sense of belonging.

The STEPS project[6] is experiencing a process-oriented co-creation of social cohesion based in the local community. A key factor in order to deal with demographic and social change is the integration of strategies and measures coupling different competences, within a public-private-civic mix. The decision to choose the district level with a range of neighbourhoods gives the opportunity to create a bigger and stronger network and broader insights. What is needed is a long-term perspective and flexibility listening to the needs of the local population. The biggest challenge is to find the “hidden lonely” difficult to identify and involve, counting on the potentials of a sound local environment.

Loneliness – a challenge for European cities

Learning from this experience is becoming more and more important in many European cities, local loneliness strategies are discussed for instance in Barcelona, Stuttgart or Vienna. Shrinking and ageing societies are a Europe-wide demographic phenomenon: Decreasing fertility rates and an ageing population with an increased life expectancy by about 10 years in the last five decades are new framework conditions for many policy fields. This concerns social cohesion and intergenerational solidarity questioning traditional family and role models and asking for new social relations and forms of encounter. The conditions for education, working markets and life-long learning need to be adapted. At the same time local authorities are challenged to guarantee a balanced offer of infrastructures, welfare, public health and long-term care systems, together with new mobility solutions, and adapted housing offers etc. This need has already been addressed by the Green Paper on Ageing of the European Commission in 2021[7].

Loneliness is a crucial aspect affecting people’s lives, health, and well-being, across generations and target groups. In the academic debate, different forms of loneliness and intervention are being discussed. One main definition is based on the distinction between the objective ‘social isolation’ considered a lack of social contacts and relations (e.g. number of friends, size of social networks and quantity of social interactions) and ‘loneliness’ as a subjective feeling with negative connotations described as “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way, either quantitatively or qualitatively”[8].

To look at this “discrepancy between one's desired and achieved levels of social relations”[9] can be a key to draw the attention to the levels of social contact that people need or desire. This understanding can help to destigmatize loneliness and to analyse challenges and opportunities at the individual, societal and economic level as well as between generations.

The STEPS project is an example of how to raise the potentials both in the public realm and in the community work to make concrete interventions on the quality of life and well-being for all citizens.

As a follow-up at European level, on June 6th 2023 the European Commission DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, will host a high-level conference in Brussels to present the results from the European Parliament Pilot Project on Loneliness carried out together with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. The event will bring together top academics from different disciplines working on loneliness, international organisations as well as policymakers and practitioners working on interventions, to further dialogue and bring attention to a topic of societal relevance.

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Local and community-based strategies to address and reduce loneliness concern key aspects of life: material conditions, quality of life, sustainability of living.

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The STEPS approach uses an innovative and cross-cutting stakeholder mix for stronger local co-operation and co-production of an open and inviting environment.

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For European cities, loneliness is a crucial aspect affecting people’s lives, health, and well-being, across all generations and target groups.

[1] Dubravka Šuica, Vice-President of the European Commission, Democracy and Demography, Keynote at the Federal Conference ‘Facing Loneliness together’, German Competence Network Loneliness, Berlin, 14.06.2022

[2] Nurminen, M.; Casabianca, E.: JRC Conference and Workshop Report, Roundtable with Experts: Effective Actions to Address Loneliness, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2022, doi:10.2760/718223

[3] European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Beckers, A.; Buecker, S.; Casabianca, E., et al.: Effectiveness of interventions tackling loneliness: a literature review, Publications Office of the European Union, 2022, https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2760/277109

[4] https://knowledge4policy.ec.europa.eu/composite-indicators/mapping-loneliness-interventions_en

[5] https://uia-initiative.eu/en/news/stepspoint-social-laboratory-developed-verona-curb-urban-loneliness

[6] https://uia-initiative.eu/en/uia-cities/verona

[7] European Commission: Green Paper on Ageing. Fostering solidarity and responsibility between generations. COM(2021) 50 final, 27.01.2021

[8] Perlman, D.; Peplau, L. A.: Toward a social psychology of loneliness. In: R. Gilmour/S. Duck (eds.): Personal relationships: 3. Relationships in disorder. London: Academic Press, 1981, 31-56, p. 31

[9] Ibidem, p. 32

About this resource

Author
Petra Potz, UIA Expert
Project
Location
Verona, Italy
About UIA
Urban Innovative Actions
Programme/Initiative
2014-2020

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

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