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.