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January 30, 2008

Richard Florida

Social Isolation

« Who Is This Man? | Main | Tanked »

Over at City of God, Dan asks:

The place where I worry about a loss of community isn’t in downtown Toronto, nor is it in small, farming communities. Where I worry about this phenomenon is in the vast tracts of land developed into sprawling exurbs around cities. When I drive through the Costco badlands ... I get a palpable sense of isolation - especially when I try to imagine life there without a car.

What do others think?


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Vincent Clement

Hogwash. It may take some time, but many exurbs and suburbs do develop a sense of identity and a sense of community. My 'suburban' area in Windsor banded together for years to get a library branch built. The local schools were involved and there were plenty of community fund raising events.


I cannot agree more, especially regarding the last thought about the car. My wife and I are both from small town Ontario (large suburbias in themselves) where it is essential to have a car. We are now both in Boston for graduate school and absolutely love life without a car (I think you would be crazy to have one in this city, with public transport so effective). Eventually we hope to live in Toronto or another urban city, but hopefully the subway service will have improved by then. With some luck, we may never need a car.

Steven Saus

It depends. Some people are kind of stuck where they are at - whether due to economic conditions, wanting to stabilize children, and the like. Older non-traditional students - especially in economically hard-hit areas like Dayton (where I live) - tend to select universities for location and price, not prestige and quality. It's not a far stretch to expand that behavior to state that if at all possible, those quality older graduates will try to stay in the same place as well.

That might just be a godsend for things like Dayton, though. Perhaps us aging X'ers and boomers might just be a slightly different (less mobile) type of Creative Class. We could still embody many of the aspects, but with a higher opportunity cost for migration. That means then, that we'd be more committed to overcoming local squelchers than otherwise. Maybe that means re-working these exurbs, much like the town just south of me has repurposed older homes into all sorts of professional offices and shops.



I suppose as author of the original post to which Richard links I should say that my assessment is more probabilistic than anything. I think that you *can* have a sense community the suburbs - but I do get the sense that it must be more difficult given the way so many suburbs are laid out.

Zoe B

It also depends upon how you define 'a sense of community'. Do you want democratic process? Do you want to know the neighbors? Do you want a passing chat with an acquaintance? Do you want to have a really good conversation about a matter dear to your heart? Do you want comforting company after a loved one has died?

My husband's grandmother almost never left a four-block area of Queens (NY), and played cards with the same 3 friends nearly every afternoon. In the 1920s she took care of a widowed elderly neighbor. During the Depression her family had a place to live because that old man died and willed her his house.

My mother-in-law lived in Yellow Springs, Ohio in the 1950s. She couldn't stand the lack of privacy - if she cried at the movies, the whole town would see it. Later, she loved living in a New Jersey suburb where (even after 40 years in the same house) she barely knew the names of the next-door neighbors. Her community was work colleagues and immediate family. This style suited her well until she was widowed and retired and too blind to drive. Then her days were terribly lonely.

My neighborhood has narrow lots, with medium-sized front yards. People meet each other while walking the dog or doing yardwork. A neighbor who raised her children here later moved to a McMansion. She once told me that in the new luxe development the yards are so large that no one walks, and no one does their own yardwork, therefore she never even sees the neighbors. She misses the old neighborhood feeling.

I first came to this college town as a graduate student. My first weekend here was Labor Day, and there was nothing going on because all the undergrads had gone home. I didn't know a soul yet. I got so lonely that weekend that I went to see Last Tango in Paris alone (not recommended!). People who move a lot have to deal with this over and over again, even if they live in a walkable town.

I think you can have community in the exurbs, but it takes more energy and time to develop. If you have to spend hours a day commuting, do you have energy or time to invest in community? The barriers are higher, thus for many people the available forms of community are limited.


I think it rather goes without saying that the exurbs fail to provide a community feeling. I've lived in the same suburb for 20 years on and off and I still can't carry on a comfortable situation with my neighbours. There is no sense of common identity. People live their lives in two compartments: house and work. The car is the conduit. There is of course social interaction but it requires, in almost all cases, leaving your immediate community for distanced amenities like pubs and restaurants where you are unlikely to develop any sense of community. In a typical middle-class neighbourhood the only time you're in a position to develop it are infrequent activities like shoveling snow or gardening when you're out of the home on your own two feet. This is a rarity.

And that's not to say that only suburbs have these problems. Cars and the quartering of living/working/shopping areas only extends from and exacerbates what might be a culturally rooted problem. When I lived in the annex I had a neighbour who had recently moved from Germany. After a length of brief hellos as each caught the other coming and going we finally befriended each other. Sitting down and talking with him, his biggest complaint of Toronto was that it seemed to lack the neighbourly familiarity he experienced growing up in Europe. He didn't know the people living in the other apartment units in his house despite living there for months. I can probably count on both hands the number of times I'd seen my in-house neighbours - the people that shared the same cramped stairwell as me - on my fingers; forget the number of times I've carried on a conversation with them. Of course there are going to be a thousand and one anecdotes to counter this, but its a theme I think I've correctly intuited after living in the city for an extended time. At my previous apartment, my veteran Torontonian landlords living under me barely interacted with the community and they had been living at the same residence for 60 some odd years since immigrating from Italy.

I guess it comes down to this: yes, sprawling exurbs lack a sense of community. Without a car, barring some logistical gymnastics with local transit, you are pretty much stranded. The culprit is the design, but the design itself may be a physical manifestation of an individualist-isolationist ethic that pervades both the city and the suburbs. They have dissimilar accessibility opportunities but the same people problems. City community - and I know, it does exist here and there in Toronto - is a notion that I think you're likely to see fall away if you were to go from household to household to speak to the average person.


This is a great discussion. Here's actually a very relevant CanWest News Service article, which discusses a UC-Irvine study asserting that the 'burbs have more social cohesion, and uses some Canadian examples like Mississauga:


Here's a follow-up discussion on the article, posted by Tyler Cown at Marginal Revolution:


As for me, personally, I would also say it really depends (and I like the nuanced perspectives being expressed here). I don't think it's just an issue of urban design (i.e., dense city blocks vs. sprawled suburban cul-de-sacs), but there are issues of class, ethnicity, cost of living, technology, media, lifestyle choices, etc. that are just as big as factors. I grew up in a "border burb" almost adjacent Chicago - to many colleagues and friends who grew up in further-out burbs in the 1970s/1980s, my parents neighborhood feels almost urban in density. I've seen members of my immigrant extended family pretty much arranging their social life around the same extended family, and others who have moored off a bit and are more "independent" nuclear families who are more attached to co-workers, former college buddies, non-family co-ethnics, non-family co-religionists, etc. Anecdotally, I don't see any pattern as to whether city or suburb or country strongly correlates with any of that.

I live in a quasi-new urbanist development near Columbia, SC, and am a transplant via Northern Virginia. Our community has a small neo-traditional core connected to more conventional suburban homes with a separate walking trail, generous landscaping, and amenities such as an elementary and middle school and a YMCA. It is interesting to see and observe what drives people's interactions. I think individual personalities are huge factor, above and beyond urban form. My wife has a similar large extended immigrant family, but they are scattered around the country. However, because she is very extroverted and socially-oriented, she does a much better job of keeping in touch with her sprawled-out relatives that I do (perhaps living so close to so many of them for so long near Chicago made me take them for granted?). She also has quickly made good friends in the neighborhood. We've met people who are well-adjusted and quietly building a solid family life, and unfortunately some who are on the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses treadmill. There may not be a huge amount of class diversity in our development, but there is a huge diversity in personality, perspective, attitudes, etc. That at least makes life interesting.

I've also noticed how much the military can drive social interactions, as we are near one of the largest army basic training bases. This is a region and a state where military experience automatically plugs you into a huge social network. Different regions and neighborhoods will have different catalysts for social interaction. Having children is probably the major one in our neighborhood, but in others it may be occupation, class, religion, whatever.

Zoe B

In some lights much of Vermont could be called exurb, yet the state is famous for its community feeling. Lots of small towns still have their general store.

I think that to some degree people self-sort into living environments that provide the level of community that interests them. In my town there is a distinct difference between the folks who live near the center of town in older, smaller houses and the ones who live farther away in suburban houses built since the 1960s. Among other things, closer-in folks are much more likely to vote 'blue' and less likely to let developers do whatever they want. Given that this is a college town, most of us are creative class regardless of our neighborhood. (Admittedly, there are folks who live farther out because they cannot afford closer-in. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Twenty years ago the closer-in houses cost a bit less because they were smaller, older (needing renovation), and at greater risk for 'invasion' by drunk students. But today the advantages of living near campus and downtown trump all that).

There is also the variety of community that you get from sitting in a coffeehouse working on your laptop. In some ways it reminds me of 'parallel play', the way 2-year-olds will sit side by side each playing with trucks, but not interacting. Two year olds are not able to sustain much direct interaction with their peers - they are still too much at the mercy of storms of emotion. Yet they like the company. The person who sits at a cafe sucking up the streetlife may have less personal interaction than exurban parents in the PTA. Yet the cafe-sitter may have a greater appreciation for the dance of civic life.


I think some people here are not making the distinction between knowing who your neighbour is and being connected to your community. While they appear to be in close proximity, they are very different.

A neighbour is an individual. A community is a collective spirit.

I lived in a highrise for years and did not know anyone on my floor. At the same time, I was extremely connected to the city.

Michael R. Bernstein

It will be interesting to see what happens as a result of the combination of general collapse of sprawl-based RE prices and urban core gentrification. Will declining (even deteriorating) suburbs provide the cheap living that attract the economically marginal segments of society like the bohemians that originally populated the now gentrified urban cores?

One possible scenario: In some ways, gated communities with homeowner associations could be perfect candidates for takeover and conversion to bohemian or immigrant enclaves through the strategic use of 'white flight' instincts.

Vincent Clement

Dan: I don't disagree that better layouts would assist in creating communities. So would making new developments pay the full cost of servicing (hard and soft). But it seems that every discussion about exurbs and suburbs is nothing but doom & gloom.

You can't look at a snapshot of an exurb or suburb and deem it an inhospitable place to live a la Kunstler. You have to study it over three, four, or more decades. Many of the 'neighbourhoods' that people cite as desirable, were at one time, exurbs and suburbs themselves - we just didn't call them that 50 or 100 years ago. They turned out okay.

A lot of the doom and gloomers miss or ignore the point that exurbs and suburbs are dynamic environments. I'm not saying all is well, but is it really fair to compare a 5-year old suburb with a 100-year old former suburb?

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