The Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, recently addressed our nation’s loneliness and isolation crisis in a new advisory bulletin. The public statement calls attention to the urgent public health issue of loneliness that is affecting half of all Americans, with some of the highest rates among young adults.

Dr. Murthy detailed how this loneliness epidemic has both physical and mental health consequences. Lacking social connection is as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, and is comparable and in some cases greater than other risk factors like physical inactivity, obesity, and air pollution.

“We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis,” the report notes. “This Surgeon General’s Advisory shows us how to build more connected lives and a more connected society.”

A new Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States
A new Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States

The report offers six foundational pillars for a national strategy. When reading them, I realized how building out the Bolin Creek Greenway in Carrboro would fit into the strategy outlined in the report.

The first pillar listed is: Strengthen Social Infrastructure in Local Communities, and the suggested approaches are:

  • Design the built environment to promote social connection (including parks, libraries, green spaces)
  • Establish and scale community connection programs
  • Invest in local institutions that bring people together

Equitable access is emphasized as foundational to this pillar’s success.

The Bolin Creek Greenway in Carrboro has been built in stages. Adding the final missing piece will create a 5-mile off-road, accessible path between our schools, parks, and public spaces like parks and libraries.

More people using the greenway means we increase the probability for social connection, and studies have shown there are many social health benefits to walkability and interacting with neighbors.

Greenways also bring people together with other community organizations. For example, the Chapel Hill Public Library has storywalks along the Umstead Park portion of Chapel Hill’s Bolin Creek greenway, and artists have decorated the sewage pipes along Booker Creek. Building more connections scales the existing greenway network, and increases the probability of social connections, which makes people feel part of a larger community.

Pillar two of the Surgeon General report addresses the responsibility of governments to enact pro-connection public policies:

  • Adopt a “Connection-in-All-Policies” approach
  • Advance policies that minimize harm from disconnection
  • Establish cross-departmental leadership at all levels of government

Moving forward with the Bolin Creek Greenway project is exactly the type of policy that can minimize harm from disconnection. Greenways by definition connect spaces and people! We’ve written about how greenways bring us together and how greenways are an essential part of a connected community. Projects like the Bolin Creek Greenway function as public goods, or products/services available to all members of society.

Public goods – like clean drinking water, public schools, public parks and spaces – are usually funded by tax dollars and administered by governments. This is why it is crucial that the Carrboro Town Council continue with positive action in making the completion of the Bolin Creek Greenway happen.

Pillar 6 is especially relevant in the current conversation rife with misinformation. It reads:

Cultivate a Culture of Connection

  • Cultivate values of kindness, respect, service, and commitment to one another
  • Model connection values in positions of leadership and influence
  • Expand conversations on social connection in schools, workplaces, and communities”

A culture of connection that rests on the core values of kindness, respect, service, and commitment to one another is a culture that will bring healing as we recognize our mutual humanity.

Perhaps instead of misinformation that stokes fear and disconnection, folks could expand their imaginations to envision what a genuinely connected community based on kindness and respect could be.

Yet more reason why (finally) building the Bolin Creek Greenway is just the right thing to do. Creating a built environment that physically connects public spaces and offers the potential for spontaneous interactions with fellow community members will nurture social connectedness through social infrastructure – and cultivate a culture of connection.

Nancy Lovas lives in Carrboro and is a firm believer in being local. She volunteers at the Carrboro Farmers Market, works as a business and entrepreneurial librarian, and enjoys porch hangouts with neighbors.