The Anonymous City Life: a Curse or Blessing?

Sometime ago, I went on a holiday in a part of the Netherlands with the lowest population density: Drenthe. As I cycled through its picturesque landscapes, everybody passing by, from young to old, greeted me with warm salutations – “goodmorning”, “hello”, “good day”. I got confused. I found myself perplex, and wondering why everybody was greeting me?


In addition to my confusion, I also noticed another interesting sensation. One of being seen, being welcomed and appreciated. I found myself questioning the significance of these friendly encounters and reflecting on the anonymity prevalent in city life. This led me to ponder: Is urban anonymity a blessing or an inherent deficit in our urban lives?


Walking on the bustling sidewalks of city streets, one can easily slip into a sense of invisibility, becoming just another face among the crowd filled with nameless faces. The liberation of being just another face in the crowd offers a certain freedom and independence – an escape from the burdens of expectations, judgments, or the need for recognition.


Yet, amid this liberation, a contrasting reality emerges. For some, urban anonymity serves as a reminder of the prevailing urban loneliness. Consider, for instance, this striking statement from an Amsterdam resident in a recent Parool article: “In Amsterdam, you can be dead for some weeks and your neighbours wouldn’t even notice.” Diving deeper into the topic, I found alarming statistics. I must apologise in advance, because I do not mean to make this blog too heavy, but I was shocked by the numbers: between 2005 and 2015, 378 individuals in Amsterdam remained deceased for over six months before their absence was detected.

This revelation underscores the darker side of urban anonymity, revealing a loneliness that often goes unnoticed amidst the vibrant city life.


Among all age groups, the largest increase in loneliness is observed among millennials and Gen Z. This noteworthy trend predates the pandemic, so it would be oversimplistic to solely attribute it to Covid-19. It’s essential to recognise that even those with seemingly robust social networks can experience isolation. In their efforts towards unraveling this complex phenomenon, professionals have identified some potential factors, including a history of bullying, deficient social skills, and a negative self-image. Recognising the severity of this societal challenge, the Dutch government has launched various initiatives to combat loneliness in the Netherlands. While the effectiveness of these solutions may vary, a common thread emerges: the importance of connecting with like-minded individuals.


Reflecting on these numbers and insights brought me back to the warm greetings of Drenthe. Could these seemingly ordinary gestures be a potential thread connecting us as individuals and grounding us in the essence of our shared environment?


If you’ve read this article and haven’t yet recognised the potential loneliness in urban life, I invite you to engage in a simple yet impactful challenge during your next walk. Take a moment to observe how many people genuinely see you — in your building, apartment, office, on your street, or at the supermarket where you do your groceries. Perhaps you’re among the fortunate urban inhabitants whose lives are enriched by real, meaningful connections. However, take a moment to notice those who are seeking an encounter, even if it’s just a simple greeting. And perhaps you could be the fortunate soul to ensure that this person truly feels acknowledged, valued, and seen.


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