The suburbs are good for your social life

by on November 14, 2006 at 7:37 am in Economics | Permalink

A new study says that people who live in sprawling suburban areas have more friends, better community involvement and more frequent contact with their neighbours than urbanites who are wedged in side-by-side. The results challenge the accepted idea that suburban life is socially alienating a notion that’s inspired everything from the Academy Award-winning American Beauty to Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone.

The study, released by the University of California at Irvine, found that for every 10 per cent decrease in population density, the chances of people talking to their neighbours weekly increases by 10 per cent, and the likelihood they belong to hobby-based clubs jumps by 15 per cent.

"We found that interaction goes down as population density goes up. So, turning it around, it says that interaction is higher where densities are lower," says Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at UC Irvine who led the study. "What that means is suburban living promotes more interaction than living in the central city."

Here is the story.  Here is Brueckner’s home page, here is the paper on-line.

Jason Voorhees November 14, 2006 at 8:35 am

Well, doesn’t that strike against the common wisdom of the day? One thing the results don’t invalidate, though, are other externalities associated with suburbanization – like traffic externalities as well as the loss of green space – but that one result itself goes a long way.

kyle November 14, 2006 at 8:56 am

anecdotally I have the same experience as coach. in the suburbs I have lived in people often don’t even know their next door neighbor or the family across the street.

Noel Welsh November 14, 2006 at 9:08 am

The data doesn’t support the conclusions. The data is simply: suburbanites talk to their neighbours and go to activity clubs more than urbanites. This does not support the conclusion “people who live in sprawling suburban areas have more friends, better community involvement” or “The results challenge the accepted idea that suburban life is socially alienating”.

Tim November 14, 2006 at 9:50 am

To echo the previous comments, this paper’s measure of interaction is awful. If one lived in rural Montana I imagine I would talk to my neighbors all the time as there wouldn’t be anyone else around. In a city one can choose among a much wider pool of people to talk to. I suppose I should read the paper, I hope they address this obvious criticism.

Rob November 14, 2006 at 10:40 am

Maybe it has something to do with homogeneity in suburban populations – if you’re “like” everyone you live around (e.g. white, middle-class, with young kids) then aren’t you more likely to get along? Contrast this with the city, where the population is more likely to be heterogeneous from a socio-economic, racial, religious, age, etc. point of view. Just my 2 cents (btw, I live in the city and wouldn’t trade it for anything)

Yan Li November 14, 2006 at 11:00 am

I agree with Thurston. Joining a hobby-based club is similar to signing up for 300 meals a year at PF Chang’s – one makes an extension of her house kitchen to the backdoor of the restaurant. In suburbs, by choice or by necessity, people tend to form smaller networks with stronger ties, whereas in cities, bigger networks, weaker ties. It is hard to put a value judgment on it. If someone loves having 300 meals a year at PF Chang’s, good for her, but she won’t be my friend.

JohnDewey November 14, 2006 at 11:18 am

rob: “Maybe it has something to do with homogeneity in suburban populations – if you’re “like” everyone you live around (e.g. white, middle-class, with young kids) then aren’t you more likely to get along?”

Have you ever lived in a middle class suburb? I’ve lived in five suburbs in three states over the past 30 years. My current one is typical. My wife and I have hosted two huge subdivision parties and 5 or 6 block parties since 1999. Our closest neighbors drink wine together when we hand out Halloween candy from one driveway or another. My wife has close interaction with 7 other women in the neighborhood. I play golf with a couple of guys.

Our neighborhood is anything but homogenous. Our circle of friends includes European-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Indian guest workers, and Asian mmigrants. Our token gay guy did move away, but only after serving three years as president of the Homeowner’s Association.

I’ve had similar experiences throughout my 30 years of suburban life. Suburbs were less diverse years ago, but no more.

Interacting with neighbors really has nothing to do with density. IMO, it’s dependent on personal attitude and perception of safety.

David Zetland November 14, 2006 at 12:07 pm

Isn’t it interesting that this paper comes from a university located in a planned, suburban community and not from, say, UC Berkeley, Columbia U or U Chicago? Why — because research is often about justifying an intuition that turns out to be *either* biased or true. Trouble is that the researcher often cannot tell one from the other…

Red Crayon November 14, 2006 at 12:46 pm

He does not cite one of the major works in this field,
To Dwell among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City
, which is (at best) partly
supportive of his findings. Fischer found roughly equal number of friends no matter where
one lives (not more in the suburbs or city), but he found other differences. It’s a good read,
somewhat ahead of its time.

Barkley Rosser November 14, 2006 at 1:02 pm

Desperate Housewives versus Sex in the City.

RWP November 14, 2006 at 1:43 pm

“Suburban Fairfax County is clearly more diverse”

Is that a scientific calculaton? Seems to me ethnic diversity is not the question. Isn’t Fairfax county the richest county in the country?

What a crock. I think this would prove the point of why living in the burbs is a ‘happier’ place. Don’t have to see all those poor folk.

John Thacker November 14, 2006 at 1:58 pm

Don’t have to see all those poor folk.

Don’t see all those rich folks, either. They tend to live in the city, too.

Cities tend to be wonderful places if you’re rich. They tend to be horrible places if you’re poor, and have lots of laws and zoning that keep people poor. The poor immigrants to the DC area have all recently been locating in the suburbs, where they quickly climb up to the middle class. The poor in DC, OTOH, stay poor.

Half Sigma November 14, 2006 at 2:32 pm

Cause and effect issue.

Married people with chidlren are more likely to live in the suburbs, and most types of community activities are oranized around childen and married couples.

wbg November 14, 2006 at 3:51 pm

Many urban areas have so many negative qualities that a lot of families prefer to raise their children in an environment with a safer and more social atmosphere. One example is they don’t have to deal with every block you walk, a person coming up smelly like MD 20/20 asking for some money to feed his family. When you don’t have to deal with these types of situations it makes the residents happier and more willing to socialize among their community.

Jamaal November 14, 2006 at 5:08 pm

In response to David Zetland’s comment;

Jan Brueckner has only been affiliated with Irvine a short time, while spending the bulk of his career at Univ. Illinois Urbana-Champange. I don’t think he has the bias of someone who has been brain-washed by planned suburban communities.

Heather November 14, 2006 at 10:36 pm

Doesnt this sort of boil down to the basic law of supply and demand? Supply goes down demand goes up. Amount of people in the community go down the more demand for interaction and social exception goes up. Makes perfect sense when using the law of supply and demand.

JohnDewey November 15, 2006 at 10:10 am

Delirious: “Instead of dealing with the crime explosion of the late 60s/70s, people who could just moved away.”

I think there’s some truth to that idea. But don’t be too quick to blame the new suburbanites for not dealing with crime. They were paying high taxes in the cities, yet receiving little protection. Court rulings in the 60′s and 70′s made it much more difficult for police to remove criminals from the street.

IMO, crime wasn’t the main reason for white flight to the suburbs in the 70′s. Forced busing to achieve integrated schools truly frightened parents. Integration wasn’t the problem. Most parents weren’t concerned about a few African Americans ni their child’s school. But they absolutely revolted when judges ordered their 10 year olds to be bussed clear across town to schools in low income neighborhoods.

Once the Supreme Court ruled that children should not be bussed across school district lines, urban school districts were doomed. By moving just a few miles, frightened parents could remove the bussing threat for good.

Matthew November 15, 2006 at 3:47 pm

I agree with the homogeneity argument. I live in the middle of a major city right now that’s also usually pretty high on the “most dangerous cities” list. I meet people through school, work and “clubs,” as Toqueville would put it. Talking to your neighbor around here isn’t exactly a wise course of action.

scott korfmann November 15, 2006 at 5:48 pm

The results of this study could be no further from the truth. To assume from one study that people in lower population densities have higher social interactions is absurd. Most people move from urban environments to get away from people and avoid the forced social interactions of urban living. Especially in todays fear riddled environment. People today are now scared of their suburban neighbors. With media covering so many terrible stories of the queit neighbor who went crazy or the child abducted from the backyard, America is turning agoraphobic. They are coming to the suburbs not because it is safe, but because it is safer. You can smell the fear in suburban America today.

One of my last residences was in southern villages in Chapel Hill, NC. A nice community based on the old style American suburban living where there steet lights and side walks everywhere. A local movie theater, grocery store, elementary school, church and restaurants. I have never lived in a place so socially isolated from my neighbors. The suburbanites seemed to actually go out of there way to avoid you. My only social inteactions were anonymous complaints from neighbors left on my door step about noise and parking. And the letter from the “beautification committee” informing that I must replace my mailbox, which they would gladly do for a fee, or if done myself I had to purchase a certain brand and model which was exclusively sold from one supplier in Raleigh. If that doesnt sound neighborly what does.

In summation dont go to the suburbs expecting friendly neighbors. The Norman Rockwell way of life is gone and past. In a society where no one trusts anyone, social interaction is declining everywhere. Or move to the neigborhood where the study was done because it sounds like an exception to me.

AIngle November 15, 2006 at 6:05 pm

I would have to say i grew up in the suburbs and i absultly loved it, all the families on my street were really close and we could always count on one another for anything. THe parents and the kids were all really good friends. I dont know what it is like growing up in the city, my mom grew up in atlanta and lived right downtown and then they moved to the surburbs of atlanta and then she grew to love it. She said the people in the surburs are more friendly nad more outgoing. i think i want to raise my family in the surburbs so that they can experience what i got to experience growing up.

JohnDewey November 16, 2006 at 7:53 am

Dean Terry: “The “style” of the neighborhood I recently moved out of was that of coldness. … Nearly everyone I talked to in the region (northern Dallas suburbs) felt the same.”

Dean, I’ve lived in two north Dallas suburbs the past ten years – in Carrollton and in Flower Mound – and had exactly the opposite experience. Please read my description of my Flower Mound neighborhood above – about the 13th or 14th from the top.

Certainly some of my neighbors have appeared to be unsocial. But most that started off that way opened up with a little encouragement. My wife is a master at getting quiet people to start talking. I’m not too bad at it myself.

IMO, there are just not that many truly cold people in America. There are millions of shy people, though.

Murphy November 17, 2006 at 11:41 am

This study jibes with my experience as well. My theory: When you live so close to people you learn to “not see” them. That way each of you can go about your daily routine without having to worry about how you look, etc etc. When you live farther apart having the social connection is more important because if something goes wrong there is not someone “right there”. I lived in Arlington VA for 15 years and rarely socialized with my neighbors. I have lived in more rural Oakton VA for 9 years and know all my neighbors and I am actively involved in various things with them.

Brad April 18, 2009 at 6:18 am

How does walking by someone without talking to them or acknowledging them? This is the most common social interaction one has in a city.

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