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The Suburbs Can’t Be Blamed for Everything

Research suggests encouraging denser living actually doesn't make our social fabric any stronger.

Love for the suburbs is in relatively short supply. The great American migration out of center cities coincided with a number of social trends, not least the dramatic disengagement from civil society spotlighted by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Automobiles replaced streetcars, backyards replaced city parks, television replaced the front patio, and the shared amenities of urban life gave way to more private pursuits. Kenneth Jackson, the preeminent historian of American suburbanization, once lamented, “There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street on a hot afternoon.”

As a result, the traditional Main Street—in which neighbors kept eyes on the street and there was a bar where everybody knew your name—has come back into vogue. New Urbanists herald the dramatic rebirth of American downtowns and claim that more walkable cities and towns will lead to a more robust sense of community. In tight-knit urban environments, they tell us, neighbors are more likely to run into each other, create unexpected social connections, and build bridges across the identity divides that too often separate us.

The idea that fewer white picket fences might make us better neighbors is an attractive claim. Yet, as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has pointed out, “there is no evidence suggesting that discouraging medium-density, car-based living will improve social capital.” An urbanism that thinks denser neighborhoods will change behaviors and reknit frayed social fabrics will fail. But America does need an urbanism focused on providing individuals and families more choices in the style and type of their environment, a choice too often constrained by the paths already taken.

During America’s exodus to the suburbs, traditional development patterns, clustered around streetcars and rail lines, were abandoned for the large lots and car-centric culture of the Baby Boomers. From 1960 to 2010, the average household size fell by about one sixth, while the average square footage in a new home and the number of cars per household both rose by about two thirds. During that time, Putnam reported in Bowling Alone, the number of Americans traveling to work in private vehicles increased from just over half to about nine in 10.

Sprawling development meant lower social capital for three reasons, Putnam speculated. First, those solitary commutes crowded out available time for other community or social activities. Second, suburbs accelerated socioeconomic stratification and homogeneity, reducing the perceived need to participate in local politics in order to advocate for heterodox positions. Lastly, sprawl disrupts community “boundedness”—when we live in one suburb, work in another, and shop and socialize in a third, our daily lives become disjointed, passersby in multiple geographic communities rather than full residents in a single one.  

Some studies had found reasons to believe compact neighborhoods were more conducive to social capital, a strong sense of community, or even upward mobility. Yet in 2017, a meta-analysis surveyed the published research literature on the relationship between density, urbanization, and social capital. The evidence is mixed, but, on the whole, seems to cut against placing the blame on suburban life: overall, higher levels of population density are associated with weaker community life and lower social capital.  

Researchers have known that density and civic participation don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Residents of a major metropolitan area were less likely to attend public meetings, to be active in community organizations, to attend church, or even to visit friends. But as Putnam and others pointed out, Americans urbanized at a rapid pace during the first half of the 20th century, and civic engagement rose to record levels. It seems implausible that those three mechanisms—longer commutes, socioeconomic self-segregation, and a loss of community integrity—could not have had at least some impact on our willingness to become involved in community life.

Yet Harvard’s Glaeser points out these mechanisms are not inherent to suburbanization. Take commuting time, which is actually shorter in low-density metropolitan areas. (The average commute on public transportation is almost twice as long as the average car-based commute.) In fact, if it weren’t for the easier point-to-point commutes enabled by suburban spreading, social capital might have fallen even further in the second half of the 20th century. Putnam’s sprawl-based “civic penalty” turns out to be illusory, Glaeser says:

Whatever caused the decline in civic engagement (the television, perhaps) has been partially offset by sprawl…. Density is associated with less, not more social capital, perhaps in part because density is associated with longer commutes. Sprawl may have negative consequences along other dimensions, but it cannot be credited with killing social capital.

Glaeser’s work is buttressed by a recent analysis of the American Time Use Survey, which found that time spent with neighbors and friends did not significantly vary between city dwellers and suburbanites after controlling for relevant demographics, eliminating the idea of a “civic penalty” against suburban residents.

Small towns, lauded by Putnam for their high rates of civic engagement, often boast the kind of low-density development and heavy automobile reliance associated with the much-maligned suburbs. But they also often feature downtown cores as traditional central hubs of social activity. Might this kind of density, with the Main Street-as-civic space ethos lauded by the New Urbanists, provide a path towards greater neighborliness?  

Research from the University of California-Irvine’s Jan Brueckner and Dublin City University’s Ann Largey casts cold water on these hopes. Density might be correlated with higher social interaction, but these effects seem to be driven largely by self-selection. Their methodology rests on a technical assumption that is defensible but not rock-solid. Yet, if we grant it, their work implies that a given individual moving from a denser to less dense census tract would see their level of both formal and informal social activity rise, not fall.  

Brueckner and Largey speculate that the kind of casual interaction that builds up community ties, such as like stopping to chat with a neighbor mowing the lawn, is less common in denser cities, where encounters might be harried or rushed. Again, the key takeaway is the importance of self-sorting—denser neighborhoods do seem not to make people more sociable, but simply offer sociable people the chance to live close to other sociable people.

Self-selection ends up being a consistent theme. New Urbanist developments in Arizona juiced social capital, but their impact is fully explained by residents’ self-reported preferences on spending time with neighbors or having a close-knit community, and those preferences did not change over time. The same holds in walkable neighborhoods’ purported health benefits—an apparent link between sprawl and high levels of obesity seems to be driven by overweight individuals choosing to live in low-density, automobile-friendly developments. After controlling for relevant characteristics, researchers from the London School of Economics found “no evidence that neighborhood characteristics have any causal effect on weight…[thus] recent calls to redesign cities in order to combat the rise in obesity are misguided.” With obesity, as within sociability, neighborhoods may attract like kinds, but their power to change behavior is unproven.

If the ability to choose walkable or automobile-oriented communities was unconstrained, we might not worry about this relationship. This is clearly not the case. Putnam’s second mechanism of sprawl on social capital was a concern over self-segregation in the well-to-do suburbs, but wealthy census tracts both in and out of cities have become rigidly stratified. As the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project put it, “because of residential segregation by income, race, and other attributes, neighborhood advantages enjoyed by families in the communities richest in social capital are often mirrored in disadvantages faced by residents of other neighborhoods.” While the higher levels of social interaction seem to be an artifact of self-selection, the option to self-select in is far from universal. Residents of walkable urban communities often tend to be rich and white. This has a feedback loop—greater racial and social homogeneity leads to higher levels of trust, and thus more associational life.

There is much more that could be said about the socioeconomic determinants of communities and how they are weaponized through exclusionary public policy choices. Those barriers to entry often freeze out the disadvantaged, working-class, and families. Instead of taking on the exclusionary approaches of San Francisco or Boston, we might find more promise (and less resistance) in making mid-size cities more available, desirable, and amenable to people who seek more holistic forms of community life. Devolving power to the local level, and creating space for communities to come together as organic units, can combat the centrifugal tendency of modern life. As Putnam pointed out, “Getting involved in community affairs is more inviting—or abstention less attractive—when the scale of everyday life is smaller and more intimate.”

New Urbanist advocates and suburban apologists could make common ground by realizing the limitations of the built environments in changing the behavior of our community life. Rather than making grand claims about creating better neighbors, urbanists should be content with understanding the built environment as an auxiliary, not primary, determinant of social capital. At the same time, recognizing the desire hunger for integrated community life that has driven some of the dissatisfaction with traditional suburban settings entails taking those desires seriously, rather than assuming urbanism is a “phase” that Millennials will outgrow once they become parents. The high prices for trendy downtown lofts at least partially reflect the pent-up demand to be able to self-select into denser community lifestyles.

In our age of liquid modernity, community is no longer something we inherit, but something we construct, for better or for worse. The way we build our cities and towns can treat social interaction as given or as something to encourage. Making the scale of everyday life more intimate, increasing the opportunities for residents to casually interact, creating physical space for more cross-class relationships—not everyone will want to live in a neighborhood that pursues those goals, and that’s okay. But many more do than currently have the means or opportunity to, and meeting that demand should be something urbanists and suburbanists can agree come to terms on.

Patrick T. Brown is a master’s of public affairs student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His writing has appeared at National Review Online, First Things, and the Washington Post, and he is on Twitter at @PTBwrites.



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