Is Urbanism to Blame For Social Alienation?

This commentary from ArchNewsNow wonders whether urbanism is really the cause of social alienation, not the cure.

"The statistical revelation behind all of these findings is that for every 10% increase in density, there is a 10% decrease in socialization. That's a simple, one-to-one inverse relationship that everyone can understand."

"Of course this scientifically researched revelation begs the question, 'Why is this so?' The authors of the study suggest that "crowding associated with a dense environment might spur a need for privacy, causing people to draw inward. Such behavior could reflect the old saying: ‘good fences make good neighbors.'' The authors' conclusion is that 'density has been shown to exert a negative influence on social interaction, undermining an important line of attack used by critics of urban sprawl.' This may be an inconvenient truth for the New Urbanist movement, but this negative view of density is hardly new."

Full Story: Bowling Alone in Urbanistaville



Dense Suburban

The study seems to conflate "density" and "urbanism." It isn't surprising that social interaction would be weak in dense suburban areas.

How about the tendency of

How about the tendency of recent immigrants to settle in high-density tracts? Do you think that may have something to do with the negative correlation between high density and civic engagement?

I would like to read about how they determined causation -- it is mentioned briefly in the essay but not elaborated.

Personally I've lived in many low-density areas and many high-density areas and have had mixed amounts of community in each.

Michael Lewyn's picture

even if he's partially right, Carson overstates his case

I'm not sure what "Social Alienation" is, but whatever it is, I would suspect that it probably increased in the late 20th century, given that the growth of crime, divorce, etc.

Is it purely a coincidence that such behavior increased during the growth of suburbia and the decline of older cities?

Perhaps so- that is, it might be the case that the decline of urbanism didn't CAUSE the social alienation of the past few decades. But it is pretty obvious that the decline of urbanism didn't PREVENT these problems.

Understating the case of theTeeVee.

Is it purely a coincidence that [crime, divorce] increased during the growth of suburbia and the decline of older cities?

As with all complex phenomena, surely there is more than one cause. Nonetheless, the discussion of social alienation has neglected

    Furthermore, those late nights I have driven back to the Pooldar apartments in Berkeley after working, I have seen in the windows the pale blue glow of at least one television in every home. And I am told that many family meals are eaten in front of this screen as well.

    And perhaps this explains the face of Americans, the eyes that never appear satisfied, at peace with their work, or the day God has given them; these people have the eyes of very small children who are forever looking for their next source of distraction, entertainment, or a sweet taste in the mouth. And it is no longer to me a surprise that it is the recent immigrants who excel in this land, the Orientals, the Greeks, and yes, the Persians. We know rich opportunity when we see it. -- Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog



Urbanism And Alienation

The obvious problem with the research by Brueckner and Largey is that they take a snapshot of the relationship between urbanism and alientation at the present time, but they don't look at their relationship over time.

As Carson says, Robert Putnam has shown that social interactions among Americans have declined over the past decades. But we all know that density of American metropolitan areas has declined dramatically over the past decades.

Lower density is correlated with more social interaction at present time, but lower density is correlated with less social interaction historically. The obvious explanation is that density is not a major cause of declining social interaction, that other social factors are the cause (and if suburbs have more social interaction at the present time, that is because of self-sorting, not because lower density causes more social interaction).

So, the research that Carson cites is shaky. Carson's own comments are sophomoric.

Eg, his talk about evolution confuses high density with crowding. If you live with a dozen people crowded in a 1000 square foot house, the crowding will cause tension, but if you have two people living in a 3,000 square foot luxury apartment in a highrise in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, crowding will not cause tension, despite the high density of the overall neighbhorood.

Carson also misuses the term "begs the question" to mean "raises the question," a sign of ignorance:
"Of course this scientifically researched revelation begs the question, 'Why is this so?'"

Charles Siegel

I am appalled at the

I am appalled at the simple-mindedness of the anti-sprawl crusaders who think that because low densities are bad in every respect that therefore the higher the density, the better. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in a paper published in 2000 says that either end of the spectrum is undesirable and that optimal levels of social capital can are achieved at a happy middle. Here is a quote from that paper:

"Given the previous discussion of urban social problems, it seems surprising that higher density is thought to increase social connection, but it is likely that the New Urbanists have in mind a nonmonotonic relationship between social connection and density. At low levels of density, social networks cannot exist because transportation costs between people are too high. At high levels of density, individuals do not form bonds because they are too mobile and find it too easy to take advantage of one another and just move on. According to this view, the optimal level of density for the generation of social capital is somewhere in between the low density of rural areas and the high density of New York City."


Michael Lewyn's picture

Well gosh...

Prof. Glaeser said so. Does that settle the argument? Is Prof. Glaeser infallible?

Michael Lewyn's picture

TV is certainly a possible suspect

At any rate, I think both sides of the argument overstate their case- that is, urbanism alone isn't a particularly important cause or cure of social alienation.

(No subject)

Conceptual Art

The post above looks to me like a brilliant comment about social alienation.

Charles Siegel

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