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November 15, 2006

« What really drives regional economic development? | Main | America, Spiky and Unequal »

Anyone who has ever seen Desperate Housewives will understand that lot's of socializing goes on in the suburbs. And nosy neighbors have been a comedy stand-by of sitcoms from Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie to today's Big Love. But in the main, social scientists have sided with Carrie and her crowd from Sex in the City in finding that cities are where the real social action is.

A new study by two economists (hat tip Tyler Cowen) tips the scales for the Desperate Housewives set finding that people who live in suburbs have more social interaction than those who live in cities. And, btw, another study published in the American Sociological Review finds that more are more of us are more "socially isolated"  regardless of where we live.

According to a Canadian news report, the "study finds that 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."

I circulated the study to people who have done considerable research on social capital and cities and and asked the their comments.

Here's what Gary Gates of UCLA's Williams Institute who has examined the effects of social capital on regional growth has to say: "This actually doesn't surprise me at all.  While one has many more "interactions" with people in urban areas, few are actually meaningful. Urban areas, and particularly dense ones, can be outposts for people seeking anonymity.  Urban areas also have sufficient amenities such that individuals need not rely on their neighbors for much, including for social interaction."

What do you think?



Interesting study. I only have my own personal experience to go on, in which my suburban experiences (Newton, MA and Arlington, VA) have been marked by far less interaction with neighbors that I've had in my urban homes (Boston, Washington, and Houston). But apparently my experience may be unusual.


John--Funny you should say that, because it's been my experience too. And it's not just us: We were out to dinner Saturday with some friends. One of the women there told us she had moved to the Northern Virginia suburbs when she had kids for space and schools. But quickly her family felt completely isolated. She's moved back to a more urban neighborhood and feels much more connected.


My pet theory - when a neighborhood is challenged, people come together. In Logan Circle there were a ton of safety and improvement issues. In my current neighborhood (Houston Heights) the challenge of preserving our historic homes in a city that's allergic to zoning and preservation. It does tend to get people involved with one another to have a cause.

john trenouth

Comparing my experiences in Dallas suburbia and downtown Vancouver I'd say that I had many more, closer friends in Dallas. However we were all rather similar people at similar stages in life, whereas in Vancouver I'm surrounded by a stunnig diversity of people. Dallas was a kind of comforting sedative. Vancouver is an energizing stimulant.

There might also be regional culture to consider. Living in San Diego I've had many great conversations with perfect strangers, while in Pittsburgh I can't recall any (well, except for Phat Man Dee at Doc's one evening).

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