Higher Density Means Less Social Contact

One of the standard tenets of New Urbanism is that suburbanites have lost their sense of community and social capital, and that higher-density housing can restore these things. These ideas received a boost when Robert Putnam’s 1996 book, Bowling Alone, argued that America was experiencing a severe decline in social capital, and blamed much of this decline on the suburbs.

Now, Rich Carson, who calls himself the Contrarian Planner, points out in a new article that Putnam’s thesis is simply wrong. Instead, Carson observes, recent research from UC Berkeley has found that people living in denser areas have fewer close friends and fewer soclal interactions than people in low-density areas. In fact, as density increases by 10 percent, social interactions decline by 10 percent.

The Antiplanner has always considered Putnam’s book to be a premier example of junk science. He gathered together all kinds of statistics that he claimed showed that America’s social capital (which he never carefully defined) was declining. Since few if any of those data were gathered for that purpose, he basically cherry picked among many different opinion polls to find the data that suited him.

Only two of Putnam’s many data sets compared suburbs vs. cities and both showed that the suburbs had higher levels of social interaction than the cities (which affirms the Berkeley research). He somehow concluded that suburbs were responsible for 10 percent of the decline of social capital, and he endorsed New Urbanism to correct this. What, did he think that by forcing everyone to live in density that high quality of low-density living would no longer detract from the low quality of high-density living?

Bowling Alone received many positive reviews. But Steven Durlauf, an economist from the University of Wisconsin, was not fooled. He wrote that, despite all the data, Putnam’s thesis was “conceptually vague,” that he failed to show causality, or to even describe what the consequences might be of whatever it was that he called lower social capital.

In any case, Carson makes an excellent point: If New Urbanists and other government planners really want to increase our social capital and sense of community, they should be planning more low-density suburbs, not high-density developments. The fact that they are not indicates that they either ignore data that refutes their preconceived notions or that they have some other hidden agenda. Either way, it makes no sense for society to grant any power or authority to such people.

Share

39 thoughts on “Higher Density Means Less Social Contact

  1. Neal Meyer

    Antiplanner,

    The Internet, email, and cell phones have, and forever will, do more to promote so-called social capital and to promote interaction between people who share interests than anything that a so-called Smart Growth urban planner can ever dream up.

    The reason is because even if you do live in a high density area, that does not mean that you necessarily share many of the same interests as your neighbors do. I for example, like to play various card games, wargames, chess, and like to read books. However, none of my neighbors, past or present, share any of my interests.

    You might share interests with your neighbors like watching out for criminal activity and negative externalities, but more than likely you will not share social or leisure time interests with your neighbors, ergo you will not spend much time with them. You will, however, find people though with similar and passionate interests – such as arguing about urbanized areas and land use on the Antiplanner’s blog – through the Internet. The Internet has effectively caused search costs to plummet towards zero.

  2. D4P

    In his post that he links above, the Antiplanner says

    When it comes down to it, “sense of community” is perfect for planners. It is not quantifiable, but it taps into everyone’s loneliness and nostalgia for some mythical past when everybody loved one another.

    So, before, when the research claimed to find that density and “sense of community” were positively related, the Antiplanner rejected the notion that sense of community could be quantified.

    Now, when the research claims to find that density and sense of community are negatively related, the Antiplanner says

    If New Urbanists and other government planners really want to increase our social capital and sense of community, they should be planning more low-density suburbs, not high-density developments.

  3. Close Observer

    No, D4P, the research NEVER found that high density meant greater sense of community/higher social capital, etc. That’s a myth of the Smart Growth/New Urbanist community.

    Why should we be surprised that they’re wrong (again)?!

  4. D4P

    I didn’t say the research found that high density meant greater sense of community: I said “the research claimed to find that density and ‘sense of community’ were positively related”.

    So much for close observing…

    The point is that the Antiplanner has essentially flip-flopped on the “sense of community” concept.

  5. TexanOkie

    New Urbanism, in the words of its own founder, does not espouse the idea of anyone forcing anyone into anything. You might be confusing smart growth with New Urbanism.

    Also, or should I say again, outside of a mere handful of states, planners aren’t given the “power” or “authority” (especially in scope) you claim we’re given.

  6. sustainibertarian

    The study removed the so-called self selection bias for dense neighbourhoods. It may not be appropriate to do so as Levine argued in Zoned Out if there is sufficient unment demand for denser neighbourhoods. Also, what was the relationship found between density and ‘social interactions, i.e., was it linear – implying that one housing unit per 10 acres would generate a huge amount of social interaction (not likely). Did the author find a density cut-off at which social interactions start to decline? Suburbs vs. cities is not a very clear cutoff.

  7. hkelly1

    Where is this data from “the city” and the “suburbs” taken? What is “the city”? Is it a 30-story “project” where there is frequent crime? What is the “suburb”? Is it a gated golf community with $1,500,000 estate homes on 1-2 acre lots?

    Neither of these is what New Urbanism or Smart Growth espouse, in any way, shape or form. In fact, the “lower density” parts of the transect that form-based codes use resembles older forms of “suburbia”, with homes on small 50 by X lots. How do these types of “suburbs” fare in this survey? Are people LESS likely to talk to their neighbors when there are 8 lots per acre than when there are 1 or 2????

  8. aynrandgirl

    New Urbanism, in the words of its own founder, does not espouse the idea of anyone forcing anyone into anything.

    Words are meaningless. In practice, New Urbanists want New Urbanism to be mandatory, and they seek planning positions to make it so. The distinction you posit between New Urbanism and Smart Growth is mere ephemera.

    Also, or should I say again, outside of a mere handful of states, planners aren’t given the “power” or “authority” you claim we’re given.

    When a planner uses the presumptive authority of their position to argue for New Urbanism, and that anybody who says different should be ignored because they lack “training” and “experience”, they aren’t exercising power and authority?

  9. prk166

    “The point is that the Antiplanner has essentially flip-flopped on the “sense of community” concept. ” -D4P

    Link please. I tried a couple searches but couldn’t find anything on this blog like that. Not saying it didn’t happen; I just couldn’t find it.

    But we all really knew this already, didn’t we? After all when was the last time you saw a SNL skit mocking people in places like Boston, Chicago or NYC for having wonderful manners and being friendly?

  10. D4P

    Link please

    See comment #2, which includes excerpted text from previous Antiplanner posts. The Antiplanner provides the links in today’s post.

    He initially claimed that “sense of community” to be “not quantifiable”. But now he’s arguing that sense of community increases as density decreases, based on quantitative data.

    He can’t have it both ways.

  11. Dan

    Many misconceptions here today:

    Randal is behind the times, as Putnam’s new paper has been out for about a year, explaining this diversity issue. I guess the “scholar” missed it.

    Nonetheless:

    If New Urbanists and other government planners really want to increase our social capital and sense of community, they should be planning more low-density suburbs, not high-density developments.

    No.

    That is not what Putnam found the problem to be. But let’s not let facts get in the way of a good conclusion, eh?

    Anyway, even private planners call for higher density, for numerous reasons, including economic. Social capital (via self-sorting) is merely one of the benefits.

    Besides, if somehow in the future SG or NU developments can get diverse housing built, then there will be an issue. There is no diversity issue with new dense developments, as they are so desirable the prices get bid up, making diversity hard to come by. Another Putnam paper found the opposite of Randal’s to be true (as education levels self-sort too): We are thus able to be even more confident that rising general levels of education are likely to be accompanied by higher general levels of political and social engagement. [pg 14]

    —–
    Poor ARG:

    In practice, New Urbanists want New Urbanism to be mandatory, and they seek planning positions to make it so.

    No.

    You don’t understand how it works on the ground. Planners don’t get these enacted.

    The distinction you posit between New Urbanism and Smart Growth is mere ephemera.

    No.

    NU is much less strict than SG.

    When a planner uses the presumptive authority of their position to argue for New Urbanism, and that anybody who says different should be ignored because they lack “training” and “experience”,

    No.

    You don’t understand how it works on the ground. Planners don’t get authority. Electeds and appointeds do.

    DS

  12. Hugh Jardonn

    I used to live in NYC, in a old-style 5-story co-op that was converted from rental apartments back in the early 1980s.

    In my personal experience, I didn’t make friends with people in the building. It’s not that we were feuding or anything, it’s just that we didn’t have much in common so there was no motivation to socialize. My friends are spread around the region, our friendships based in mutual interest and not geographical proximity.

    I now live in what would be called a “smart growth” development in California but the same rule applies to my social circle. My friends don’t live within my condo complex, rather they live in various locations around the region.

  13. Dan

    Since we like Putnam’s new findings so much, there is also:

    If ethnic diversity, at least in the short run, is a liability for social connectedness, a parallel line of emerging research suggests it can be a big asset when it comes to driving productivity and innovation. In high-skill workplace settings, says Scott Page, the University of Michigan political scientist, the different ways of thinking among people from different cultures can be a boon.

    So of course here we default to economics*, then we must consider the economic argument pararmount.

    DS

    * at least, what some tell some of the readers here is economics.

  14. tripgrass

    The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (the basis of the Brueckner paper, on which Carson comments) makes a clear case for something:

    From the
    SCCBS site
    :

    “Generally speaking, our survey found disturbingly unequal access to social capital in most American communities. Rates of political participation, social participation, social trust, and the like are quite different in different social strata. For example, blacks/hispanics were less than half as likely to trust other people in their neighborhoods a lot as whites (56% of whites trusted people in their neighborhoods v. 21% for blacks and 19% for hispanics). Forty-six percent of whites had 6 or more close friends versus only 28% of blacks and 30% of hispanics. Sixteen percent of blacks and 26% of hispanics never spoke with their neighbors versus this being the case with only 6% of whites. Whites were more likely to vote and be registered to vote than blacks or hispanics (controlling for citizenship), and more likely than blacks and hispanics to work on community projects or sign a petition.”

    Social Capital is synonymous with community.

    So the results suggest low density makes you more content with your community, just as much as it suggests being white and rich makes you more content with your community.

    The causality derives not necessarily from the density, but more likely from the income and security.

  15. TexanOkie

    aynrandgirl:

    I can understand how you may think that (on both accounts), but to echo Dan, it shows an ignorance of our profession’s intent and practice.

  16. aynrandgirl

    Anyway, even private planners call for higher density, for numerous reasons, including economic. Social capital (via self-sorting) is merely one of the benefits.

    Sure, and how do they aim to accomplish that aim? By government fiat. If the alleged benefits were both real and more valuable than their costs that wouldn’t be necessary, customers would demand developers design so as to deliver those benefits.

  17. aynrandgirl

    You don’t understand how it works on the ground. Planners don’t get authority. Electeds and appointeds do.

    Apparently, you can’t read. I said “presumptive authority”. As in, “their pronouncements are presumptively authoritative”. Electeds habitually defer to planners. Planners tell electeds what to do, and use their presumptive authority (as distinguished from actual authority) to get their agenda enacted. The fact that electeds were the ones voting only obscures the reality of the process. Anybody who objects must not only muster facts, but tear down the presumption of authority given to holders of the planner’s office, which is nearly impossible.

  18. Dan

    Electeds habitually defer to planners. Planners tell electeds what to do, and use their presumptive authority (as distinguished from actual authority) to get their agenda enacted.

    HAHAHAHAHAhahahahahahahahahahahaha!

    Good one.

    DS

  19. craig

    I think all that matters is if living in density is so popular why do we have to subsidize so much of it.

    In Portland we subsidize the transit (light rail, streetcars, and bus system that supports smart growth projects.

    We subsidize the developers so they can build smart growth projects.

    We buy properties at a high price and give or sell it to Smart Growth developers for less than we paid for it.

    We subsidize their property taxes or forgive them with abatements.

    We turn many smart growth areas in to urban renewal districts which takes money that would have gone to police fire and school districts!

    I don’t care if someone wants to live in the most rural part of the state or in high density
    smart growth projects .

    I don’t think it is anyones business. I also don’t believe we should be forced to subsidize any of it.

    I don’t think we need a study to see how people are voting with their feet

  20. rationalitate

    Sure, and how do they aim to accomplish that aim? By government fiat.

    Given that current government fiats overwhelmingly mandate low density, rather than high density, it seems like the easiest way to encourage high density development is by removing current government fiats. Which would look to be something that someone with a name like “aynrandgirl” would support, though I guess looks can be deceiving.

  21. Dan

    We buy properties at a high price and give or sell it to Smart Growth developers for less than we paid for it.

    I looked for examples in Colorado for this practice, and I found none. Are we conflating one or two examples into all situations?

    DS

  22. lgrattan

    Dan,
    Things are different on the West coast. Hundreds of millions in Portland and San Jose have been given to suupport planners ideas that builders will not build without tax payers funds.

  23. Dan

    Things are different on the West coast. Hundreds of millions in Portland and San Jose have been given to suupport planners ideas that builders will not build without tax payers funds.

    I practiced in Washington state. Besides parking decks, perhaps you can tell us – besides the politician’s pet projects – where properties [were bought] at a high price and give[n] or [sold] to Smart Growth developers for less than we paid for it.

    And perhaps you can quantify this egregious propensity – surely some right-wing or libertarian site has crunched these numbers.

    DS

  24. craig

    DS said
    I looked for examples in Colorado for this practice, and I found none. Are we conflating one or two examples into all situations?

    DS
    ———————

    My post stated
    In Portland .

    Near my home Metro bought a public school which were basket ball courts, grass, baseball fields and maybe soccer fields. It’s been a few years. Pretty much open space in the city.

    Metro paid 1 million to the school district and sold it to the developer for $500,000.

    They would have received low interest loans ( I believe it was around 2-3 %) because they are in a urban renewal district. But the Indian casino that was developing the property did not need it.

    I did not say Colorado or any other city was doing what Portland is doing.

    But you only picked one of the examples that I gave and any subsidy is wrong.

  25. MJ

    In case anyone is interested, the Steven Durlauf paper linked to here as a working paper was also published in 2002 under the same title in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, vol. 47, no. 3 (March ’02), pp. 259-73.

  26. Dan

    My post stated
    In Portland .

    Apologies. I got used to the conflation tactic here, so its the default now. I’ll read your stuff more carefully. I, personally, much preferred WA’s ways over OR’s, BTW.

    DS

  27. JimKarlock

    tripgrass said: The causality derives not necessarily from the density, but more likely from the income and security.
    JK: Of course the disingenuous planners are claiming that the independent variable is density, so that is what is being debunked here.

    Thanks
    JK

  28. D4P

    Of course the disingenuous planners are claiming that the independent variable is density, so that is what is being debunked here.

    Seems to me that both sides are claiming that the independent variable is density.

    One side claims that density has a positive effect on “sense of community”, the other side claims that density has a negative effect.

    Thanks.
    D4P

  29. tripgrass

    DP4 wrote: “Seems to me that both sides are claiming that the independent variable is density.

    One side claims that density has a positive effect on “sense of community”, the other side claims that density has a negative effect.”

    That was my understanding too. Perhaps this hasn’t been an exercise in reason, but all in jest. This is why I never do well at parties. I always miss the joke.

  30. Dan

    Some one can live in a house and not know the person next door to them either.

    I believe I may have related this story here, but:

    as an undergrad, I was doing field work in Davis, CA censusing street trees for the first run at figuring out what is now a standard hand-held vegetation censusing program.

    Anyway, I was all over town doing rapid assessment, needing a large number of trees for the statistical analysis to work. I soon learned that to get my numbers, there were certain neighborhoods I could fly through, and others would take me forever. See, in certain neighborhoods I’d get stopped all the time by people asking me about their trees, shrubs, lawn because there were always people outside, whereas the fly-through neighborhoods had no one outside.

    So, both conditions: fly-through and take-forever were single-fam detached neighborhoods. Why was one full of life and the other devoid of people?

    Design.

    The full-of-life neighborhoods had porches, understated or detached garages, visible front doors, houses closer to the street (even tho ~2200+ sf). The empty neighborhoods were of snout-house design, hidden front doors, set far back from the street. I wanted to find out the difference in neighborhoods, took an undergrad planning class, and it piqued my interest. I learned that older neighborhoods had design that fostered activity outside in active streets and yards, whereas newer neighborhoods usually don’t do that.

    My next set of presentations, this fall, expand on this idea to create more places for green infrastructure at the same time fostering greenery in more compact developments.

    So, yes, density helps but design is more important. And this informs my practice – I shoot for excellent design first, not density (that takes care of itself).

    DS

  31. craig

    I prefer a attached garage so I don’t have to walk outside with groseries or unloading the car after a trip.

    I like my house set back far from the street to give me more personal space.

    I prefer a private back yard to a public front yard.

    If you want to know why people don’t sit on their front porches as much as they use to.
    I think it has more to do with TV’s, Telephones, The internet, VCR’s, DVD’s and air conditioning.

    Oh did I forget!! The car. We can now very easily drive to a friends, child’s, parents home or just go out.

    I think it has less to do with design and more to do with technology.

    I don’t care if you plan a neighborhood as long as I don’t have to subsidize it or live in it.

  32. Dan

    I don’t care if you plan a neighborhood as long as I don’t have to subsidize it or live in it.

    My latest plan was over 2000 ac and included ~ 90-110 .5-2 ac lots in addition to 3500-5000 sf lots, with much public praise to the Council from the development community.

    The .5-2 ac lots command great views while maintaining privacy. The Developer Agreements have them on the hook for almost everything, including miles roads and other infra, which is why its been a greenfield for 20+ years, as no one wants to carry that much paper, so I doubt there will be affordable housing there.

    Anyway, if you saw the views you’d live in most of the neighborhoods in that subarea if you could afford it. And afford the water in 10 years.

    DS

  33. Pingback: Who Is He Talking About? » The Antiplanner

  34. prk166

    “Anyway, if you saw the views you’d live in most of the neighborhoods in that subarea if you could afford it. And afford the water in 10 years.”
    –DS

    Bah, who needs water when you’ve got the views? :)

    Not that this is the best of spots for it but I’ve always wondered why in places like the Front Range there isn’t more xerascaping [sic]. After all, they barely get more rain in a normal year than the Sonora desert. Are people really that addicted to grass?

Leave a Reply