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The Suburbs Can’t Be Blamed for Everything

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 [1], a strong sense of community [2], or even upward mobility [3]. Yet in 2017, a meta-analysis surveyed the published research literature [4] 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 [5] 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 [6] 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 [7] 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 [8] 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 [9] 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 [10] 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 [11] 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 [12].

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "The Suburbs Can’t Be Blamed for Everything"

#1 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On September 28, 2018 @ 1:14 am

Interesting overview here.
At the same time:
I have lived in several areas in suburbs.
I have also lived in a lower middle to middle class area, Detroit, by a large city where people were buying houses in the suburbs, in the late to early 60’s. Families that meant well and had values, moral values.
When I lived in the suburbs as an adult with family, I saw that most people were not very friendly, from the late 70’s on and they were less friendly as the years moved on.
The folks with family, as I, with wife and children, were the ones that tended to be friendly. But, let’s face it, people in this nation/society were simply getting colder toward their fellow citizens.
Still, I’ll tell ya, you walk around a downtown area, such as Denver and go into any public place, such as restaurants, bars, coffee shops, well, most of these places are where beer, wine and booze are ordered more than food, and you will see the unfriendliest, most ignorant people in America when it comes to simple politeness. You say hi, they don’t answer and simply look at you like you’re a martian or something. They have their headphones, smartphones, computers and so on and they are, by the way, of the 18- 40 somethings generations. If you have kids, stay the heck away from an American downtown, except to show them, your kids, freak shows.
It’s a good thing, ironically, that most of these people-18-50 year old are living with computers and their very small circle of friends-even those are very temporary- don’t wanna have children, because they would make the worse parents, aside from those that live in the inner decaying cities that already are.

#2 Comment By Conewago On September 28, 2018 @ 5:32 am

Look, the point is, the government created sprawl. The Federal Reserve’s direction towards our ultimate fiat petrodollar currency; FDR and his silly little Federal Housing Authority; the subsidizing of highways and policy actions against the railroads; etc, etc, etc, these things created what we know as sprawl.

#3 Comment By DrivingBy On September 28, 2018 @ 7:09 am

Once again the Planners, aka Those Better Than US, have spun a theory that pleases themselves and is of only occasional benefit when applied to the world’s chaos, morphing to frequent harm when applied at scale with government force.

Personally I’d love to live in a semi-dense, walkable village-burb of roughly the scale which existed by necessity before the automobile. While I probably have many illusions, the idea that forcing the majority into such settlements would be a good thing is not one of them.

#4 Comment By Dan Green On September 28, 2018 @ 9:30 am

Segregation is part of our culture, along all political persuasions. That is why we choose to create where we live.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On September 28, 2018 @ 9:42 am

I’ve read that moving to urban neighborhoods works as long as couples don’t have children. Once they have a family, the suburbs look more appealing & the trend reverses.

#6 Comment By Elena vasquez On September 28, 2018 @ 1:16 pm

Dense cities have very high levels of young people. I live on the outskirts of NYC. Most of the young people I’ve met either have 4 or 5 roommates or their parents are helping with the rent. Once they’re ready to start families, off to the burbs they go. Big cities are just too costly and you can’t raise children in a studio-apartment.

#7 Comment By JonF On September 28, 2018 @ 3:24 pm

There’s a youngish family at our church, originally from Michigan like me, with two young children (the oldest just turned five) They live just three blocks from the church, one of two families who can actually walk to church. (I live on the other side of downtown, about three miles away). They swear they have no intention of moving away. However their neighborhood is a good one, and presumably the elementary school isn’t terrible, and the wife teaches remedial reading in the city school system, so that may gove them a leg up in making sure their kids will get a good schooling. Also they’ve talked about sending them to a Catholic high school- there’s one in the same neighborhood- when they get older.

#8 Comment By Peter on the prairies On September 28, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

I live in a mid-density neighborhood and have a family. It works well. I don’t think it would go as well in the downtown core – not many parks, playgrounds or schools there.

We love being able to walk to school, church and friends. There is shopping and dining at the periphery of our neighborhood.

But no the neighborhood itself doesn’t make you friendlier. There are houses on my street where I have never seen, let alone met the people living in them.

I can give you one guaranteed way to meet at least some of your neighbors – have a dog. You’ll at least meet other dog owners when you’re out walking yours.

#9 Comment By Bill On September 28, 2018 @ 4:48 pm

A lot of good sense here.

I actually live in the sort of early-1900s railroad suburb described by DrivingBy (above). It’s a New Urbanist’s dream, except that the bulk of the housing is single-family homes, good-sized but on modest lots. But it’s no panacea.

It’s lovely and we like being able to walk places. And it’s nice to run into people here and there. But does that make it friendly? Not especially. Front porches abound; does that mean that we interact with neighbors? Rarely. Do we all get along? Barely. Our town is well-defined; does that generate strong civic feeling and involvement? Not more than elsewhere.

The fact is that our significant interactions and socializing are largely with people known through school and work and organizations, no different than things would be if we lived in the New Urbanists’ most-nightmarish car-dependent exurbia.

I am, quite frankly, fed up with those who seek to force people into dense housing and public transportation. Besides the fact that this may not be one’s preferred lifestyle, I’ve seen how such environments foster both oppressive government and left-wing politics.

#10 Comment By polistra On September 28, 2018 @ 5:57 pm

In most cities the suburbs of the ’50s aren’t all that different in density from the original townsite or the streetcar suburbs of 1910. Lot size is about 50×100 in all of them, and the working class and middle class mingle pretty well in all of those areas.

The real difference happened around 1980 when the top 5% moved WAY out to their 10-acre estates. Before this, only a few super-rich had country estates. Now the upper-middle is totally isolated from the middle and lower…. which means the taxpayers who control the city council no longer care what happens to most of the city.

#11 Comment By Rossbach On September 28, 2018 @ 10:19 pm

American urbanism foundered on the shoals of demographic change. Americans are a tolerant people, but there are some things that they will not (and should not) tolerate. The loss of our cities was one of these. The total assault on our culture that came with the demographic changes to our cities after about 1940 created the suburbs. As the change continues, even they are being destroyed. The question now is what happens when our people when they have no place else to run?

#12 Comment By Tye On September 29, 2018 @ 12:36 am

The piece is part of the problem. It’s not just density or porches vs. lawns. Look around. It’s not urb vs. burb. It’s city Transect vs. strip commercial & SFD zoning. It’s multi-modal vs. exclusively auto. It’s neighborhood vs. PUD. It’s mixed vs. segregated. It’s not planners vs. market either. You’re new urb is so dated it’s silly. Obviously more choice is better; Duh. The important question is choice of what, and why. And new urb fairly characterised seems better than the crap I see all around us every day.

#13 Comment By Rick Steven D. On September 29, 2018 @ 8:05 am

Did this research control for rates of homeownership? I always thought that was the number one factor predicative of civic engagement, social capital, etc. I may be wrong about the rest of the country, but in the New York Metropolitan area at least, city people rent, no matter what the income bracket, whereas suburban people own. It may be changing as New York City becomes the playground of the international rich, of course…

#14 Comment By Stephen Reynolds On September 29, 2018 @ 12:30 pm

New-Urban density should not be peddled as a panacea, granted. Government played a crucial role in condemning us to the sort of suburbia we now have, granted. I now live in a suburban, ranch-style house, which is not where I would be if I had my druthers, but is wonderful because I am not homeless (the only alternative). Zoning laws see to it that I cannot walk to much of anything but a bus stop, and thank God for that (it’s only a mile away). There are no sidewalks; I must walk in the streets or not at all. I occasionally interact with neighbors (not long ago rescued one neighbor’s who was locked in a shed by a gravity latch), but not often. Landlord forbids pooch. We really didn’t have to live this way. Car commute takes less time because unlike bus, car doesn’t have to stop every two blocks. A decent public transportation system after WWII would have made a great difference, but instead we built garages with houses attached. Much of what is so good about pre-war residential neighborhoods became illegal after VJ day. The building jag was unavoidable: millions of vets returning, looking to start families, and we knew from wartime production that we could build huge numbers of anything in short order. Application of thought to the process would have improved things a lot.

#15 Comment By Ivo Olavo Castro da Silva On September 30, 2018 @ 6:33 pm

There is nothing more American than the suburbs. The quality of life is incomparably higher than inner cities. The relationships became more family-centered than community-centered because of the lower density. Politeness and friendliness were a hallmark of the times in the fifties and early sixties (perhaps the pinnacle of the suburban era).
But not everything may be lost. A couple of months ago while walking the streets in Manhattan two absolute strangers, on separate days, for no reason at all, greeted me “good morning, sir”. And most fantastic of all, both were african-americans!

#16 Comment By m On September 30, 2018 @ 8:51 pm

How about if you just leave people alone, and allow an organic outcome? I come from a lovely country that was destroyed by a filthy revolution. For generations, people of all socio economic levels lived together and to this day, my aunts and uncles in their 80’s and 90’s and in exile for over 50 years have chosen to live near by each other.They key is laughter and shared experiences, it is language, culture, faith and family that form these bonds. Leave people alone to make their own lives. Its way richer and better for all. Don’t you think?

#17 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On September 30, 2018 @ 11:56 pm

mrscracker says:
I’ve read that moving to urban neighborhoods works as long as couples don’t have children. Once they have a family, the suburbs look more appealing & the trend reverses.

Yup, as soon as couples have kids they want more space for them and good schools for them. It’s pretty much always the case those things are available a lot cheaper in the suburbs. The people who stay are the rich, the people who can’t afford to move at all, and the determined lovers of urbanism who will live with their kids in a studio apartment and send their kids to poorer schools. Personally, I think apartment complexes with courtyards are great for kids, but I seem to be in a small minority.

#18 Comment By mrscracker On October 1, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

JonF & Thomas Hobbes,
Thank you for your comments.
You know, I was thinking more about families getting a larger living space for their money in the suburbs, but you’re right about the schools issue, too.

My daughter has friends who moved from here back to Edinburgh with 2 small children. It’s been a challenge. They have to either lug a stroller up a couple flights of stairs or get special permission to leave it at the building’s front door. Everything has to be carried up & down the same way, including the baby.
But people lived that way with very large families not so long ago in Scotland. They might have 9 or 10 children living in a one or two room flat.

I understand why people relocate to the places they do but I still think it’s sad to see whole neighborhoods become “childless.” We had that virtually happen in a couple communities -one was very rural, the other at the beach. They closed down the one remaining school at the beach. Young families couldn’t afford to live there. And in the rural area there were few jobs left.

#19 Comment By Wanderer On October 1, 2018 @ 7:19 pm

There are increasing numbers of families who are involved with making urban living and urban schools work. Not everybody with children wants to live in a low density, auto-dependent suburb. I’ve seen the courtyard apartment work well for children, unfortunately it was in another country

#20 Comment By The Dean On October 2, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

Nice Article. I grew up in Cleveland in the 1960’s and watched it change from a successful, industrial, blue collar city to a mess. Starting with race riots in the late 1960’s to forced busing, outsourcing manufacturing jobs and the breakdown of the family in the 1970’s citizens moved to the suburbs. Why wouldn’t you as your home’s value depreciated, public schools became threatening environments for white students and crime and drug use soared. Good luck with that “urbanization” thing but count me out.

#21 Comment By Aryanna On October 2, 2018 @ 1:05 pm

I think some of this data is a little misleading because it assumes a certain kind of urbanism–big, dense cities. Sure, commutes on public transportation in a big city like NYC can be longer than in a car, and the pace can be more hurried than in the suburbs, but that doesn’t have to be the model for any dense community. Too often people associate urbanism with towering high rises and people in suits talking fast on phones, but really I think the most livable communities are the villages, hamlets, small towns, and mid-size cities that abound in other countries. They don’t require much public transportation (except maybe intra-city buses or commuter rail) because the urban form is at a human scale. The neighborhoods are walkable and bikeable, and there are plenty of residential options from rowhouses to courtyard apartments, so single people and families alike have the opportunity to live in town. At this scale, the pace really is slower and people are more community-focused because they’re more likely to see the same people every day. I live on a US Main Street and see this play out every day on a micro level. People in my neighborhood (which is incredibly diverse, so no comfort in homogeneity here) interact on the street and in the restaurants and cafes we frequent because we all stay primarily in this walkable area. You can’t force people to be friendly, but it’s a lot harder to be rude to people you interact with on a daily basis. Besides, you can always make friends with the friendly neighbors and leave the rest. I’d never try to make people move to a denser city, but we have to recognize that influences like the auto industry tip the scales and make it more difficult for those of us who want to preserve and better the towns that do want good urbanism.

#22 Comment By DaleInOklahoma On October 2, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

We live in the middle of 640 acres, far out in the country and about 80 miles from Oklahoma City. We do like to visit the cities for a brief period, if for no other reason than to show our children the freak show that lives there. Sure..millions upon millions like to live where their house is ten feet from their neighbors house, but we NEVER see these people outside visiting and having fun..nope..the kids are watching television and playing video games. Meanwhile, our kids are spending their days raising the animals they love and learning to live off the land and feed people. OUTSIDE where the real life is. Sure we have to drive to church and the grocery store, but our friends and family are always near and we always have something fun planned. You can’t just force everyone into the cities, we aren’t going to go and we will defend our right to live as we wish. If you don’t like rural people, who think for themselves and love their lives, stay away from fly over country. We have no need for you here.

#23 Comment By Aryanna On October 2, 2018 @ 5:17 pm

DaleInOklahoma makes a great point that many city kids are just sitting inside all day on watching tv. Unfortunately, kids growing up in the city and in the suburbs alike get very few opportunities to be in the wild or work the land. In many European towns I’ve visited, families can live a “city” life in a home close to the bakery, the school, etc., but because the town doesn’t sprawl out for miles in every direction, there are farms just outside that families visit and work on during vacations and school breaks. Often these farming areas also have a hamlet (just a few cottages) where the farming families can live close to each other, but also right next to their land. I can’t comment on other people’s views, but I definitely have a lot of respect for the rural life and think conservation of our farmland is incredibly important, especially in a discussion about urbanism. An important thing to remember is that not all urbanism is the same, and I think people can find common ground in seeking a traditional urbanism where we can use our space well for towns, farmland, and natural areas.

#24 Comment By Rob On October 5, 2018 @ 7:14 am

There are a lot of flaws and inconsistencies both in the studies cited, and in the subsequent reasoning, but the main one being confusing density with metropolitan regions. Most metropolitan cities are the epicenters of sprawl, so not sure why they’d be equated with density.
A second big flaw is equating most downtowns with traditional urbanism. Most American downtowns were altered so dramatically after WWII, they no longer offer walkability or dense living apart from new apartment blocks.

Just be simple logic, the London School of Economics study about obesity sounds very flawed. I don’t have access to the study, so who knows what criteria they used, but based on my own experience traveling around, I see far less obese people in walkable neighborhoods than in sprawl areas. It’s basic logic, if you have to walk everywhere, rather than drive everywhere, you are constantly exercising and staying active.

This reads like an article where the premise was already decided before anything was written.