An intriguing new study argues that social interactions actually diminish in higher density settings. (Media coverage here, full pdf of study here.) What’s odd about this finding is that it’s in marked contrast to most other empircal studies of the relationship between density and social capital.
The literature on the subject (summary fact sheet) is certainly not uniform. But in general the research suggests that people tend to forge more social bonds when they live at higher densities. And, interestly enough, those social bonds can be protective of health—meaning that it’s possible that living near your neighbors can actually improve your health outcomes, at least on average.
The problem with these kinds of studies, however, is that it’s very difficult to tease apart cause and effect. There’s a good chance that people self select into communities that reflect their values. Those who want to socialize may want to live near a vibrant walkable commercial center (or, if this new study is correct, in a lower-density community with many people similar to them.) And there are the usual confounders like race, education, and income, all of which play a role in how many social interactions a person is likely to have.
I find this stuff fascinating, but despite a fair bit of exposure to the research, I can’t make up my mind about how important sprawl may be to social capital. See, for example, my ramblings here and here. If folks have thoughts on the subject, I’d welcome ideas and references for further study.
I grew up in suburbia, spent my 20’s in lonely urban environs and now live in a rural area and only after a few years am making strong bonds with my neighbors. Proximity may help, but time and and investment in a community matters more. I’ll through it out there that I see transience as a bigger factors than density. Since urban dwellers are more likely to move on, this may explain the study results.
I have friends who grew up in local villages—that is, Yup’ik Eskimo villages reachable only by plane or water or snowmachine—who remember the coming of television in 1975. The change in social interaction was immediate—whereas, pre-TV, people would visit every night, that behavior virtually stopped overnight. The lack of visiting was pronounced enough that my friends, though young, remembered it. People still visit, of course, but apparently it isn’t the same. I think the arrival of the internet here in Dillingham has had a similar effect in terms of community involvement. I’ve been here 20 years, and newcomers will comment on how they heard there was much more going on 20 years ago, and that is my memory. There are other factors, such as a lack of a city parks and rec department that had lots going on then, but someone suggested that the internet may also be a facto, and it rings true.
There’s a good chance that people self select into communities that reflect their values.Yup.Until we get this figgered out, we’ll have to take these with a grain of salt. And this is all relative too, as my Yup’ik buddy sez that his town in AK has far more social interaction than anything around here.
It seems such an expression of culture to me. For instance, greeting people you pass on the street is common in my neighborhood, stranger or not. Locals enjoy it. How threatened some “feriners” can be by a simmple “Hi” from a stranger is astonishing to me. Also, I think so much of the theory on this is circular. For instance, the health issue. I can say from experience that when one’s health starts to slide one’s ability to get out and socialize diminishes. Then, the more these kitschy townhouse developments proliferate, the more segregated us limited mobility folk become in the older suburban areas. Not because that’s where we most want to be, but because that’s where the affordable single level homes are. Y’all are zoning us there! Correlation is just not causation.
I suspect that the way a space is organized has a stronger effect on social interaction, than the precise number of people living there. In Village Homes of Davis, CA, residents have significantly more social interactions with their neighbors because the homes and the community center are arranged in a way that promotes this, even though the average density is “only” 4 units per gross acre.Clare Cooper Marcus has written about the features of shared outdoor space that promote community. These principles can be applied at many different housing densities, and they can make the difference between a vibrant, popular park and a desolate urban wasteland. For ways to make your existing neighborhood more friendly, see City Repair or Superbia
Part of the issue here is that you can design community spaces [I know Village Homes as I used to live in Davis], but if people spend 3 hours a day in their cars they aren’t going to interact as much outside in community spaces. It’s the live-work gap that is the issue here, as well as the ‘drive ’til you qualify’ problem.
I would like to pose a question for the great people of this side of the country; the answer may tell more than any research. Question: What would you do in this situation? Your 15-yr-old son has been arrested for “breaking into” a neighbor’s house and stealing a mouse! He was with two other friends at the time and they all (mistakenly) thought the home was where another friend lived. The house was not locked, so they walked in. No one was home, but it was witnessed by another neighbor. I see this as an opportunity for the mothers of the three boys to get together and contact the owner of the said house to work it out. However, that is not what occurred, and given the culture of the town, probably could not occur. How would this have been handled here in Portland (or any other town in Oregon), and can you guess the town it happened in?In my mind, it would have certainly been resolved by the parties involved without any intervention by police if it occurred in an intentional community (as David, CA is), and this is one of the big advantages of an intentional community.