Monday, November 27, 2006

Study finds: Suburbia is friendly!

A colleague just e-mailed me a link to an article in the Los Angeles Times about a study by a UC Irvine professor on population density and social life. I found a press release from UCI with more details. Some excerpts:

A new study led by a UC Irvine economist debunks a popular argument against urban sprawl – that living farther from neighbors decreases social interaction. In fact, the data shows that suburban living is better for one’s social life.

Using data from 15,000 Americans living in various places across the country, researchers found that residents of sprawling suburban spaces actually have more friends, more contact with neighbors and greater involvement in community organizations than citydwellers who live in very close proximity to each other.

Among their specific findings were that for every 10-percent decrease in density, the likelihood of residents talking to their neighbors at least once a week jumps by 10 percent. And involvement in hobby-oriented clubs increases even more significantly – by 15 percent for every 10 percent decline in density. To measure these and other social interactions, researchers used data from the Social Capital Benchmark Survey and controlled for other factors such as income, education and marital status.

The LA Times article also cites historian Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History, as noting that the same criticisms about suburbia being anonymous and alienated were also made about downtown areas fifty years ago.

A Canadian news article reporting on the same study cites the lead researcher, economics prof Jan Brueckner (who is also editor of the Journal of Urban Economics), who said, "We found that interaction goes down as population density goes up. So, turning it around, it says that interaction is higher where densities are lower. What that means is suburban living promotes more interaction than living in the central city."

The article goes on to quote a suburban resident as saying,

"You couldn't give me a free house in the city and say, `Move here.' Honestly, I could never do it," she says. "There's just too many people, people are too close to each other and people are not friendly. I'm a chatterer and people don't chat in the city."

Costa is a member of her community centre, where she uses the fitness facilities five days a week and knows "almost everyone." She contrasts her lifestyle with that of her sister, who lives and works in Toronto, and concludes that she "would never leave the suburbs."

"People are always in a rush to get where they need to go and they work a lot more," Costa says of life in the city. "A lot of the time in the suburbs, people have families and their life is a little more relaxed."

My take? Suburbia may not be as isolating and anonymous as urbanites think, but it certainly still takes a good amount of intentionality for us to connect with our neighbors. I still don't know the names of all the neighbors on our block, and we've been living in our subdivision for two years. I'd be interested to find out more concrete details of this study - exactly how much interaction are we talking about? Chatting with a neighbor once a week? Having someone over once a month? Even if it's not as bad as we might have assumed it is, I'm sure there's plenty of room for growth, for suburban Christians to practice hospitality, friendship and community.


Anonymous said...

Having not looked at the statistics, I am wondering if economic advantage has come into play. The research sites an increase in hobby and leisure activities within the communities, which is likely for those who can afford it. I'd be curious as to whether the hobby or leisure time is truly local, i.e. within a few miles or if people go to different clubs or community events outside their own suburb.

Having visited the cities and downtowns of both Los Angeles and San Francisco, the claims about a lack of friendly attitude seem to be true. But then again I find myself beginning with that assumption and I superimpose that upon people. Maybe I'm the cold person that nobody wants to talk to.

One thing that can be taken is that at every opportunity one should look to be friendly, be that in suburban, urban or rural areas. The small town feel can be created in a densly populated area. One just has to recognize the people around them as people and not as population.

Al Hsu said...

Good thoughts, Kevin. One pastor who grew up on a farm but then moved to a church plant in the inner city told me that rural and urban communities are actually more alike than either of them are to suburban areas. The main reason was that small towns and city neighborhoods both still had a sense of local community neighborhood, while suburban settings were more anonymous and fragmented by commuter culture. When I think about the people I've had over to my house in the past few months, they're not my immediate neighbors - they're friends who live some distance away, in other suburbs.

Unknown said...

Part of it is that suburbia is composed of small, neighborhood communities. In the city, I may live in an apartment complex, but my community is where I work, where I go to church, etc. In suburbia, I commute to work (and don't really socialize with co-workers), I attend church in the neighborhood, and I look to the neighborhood for my social needs.

I do see how suburban neighborhood living can be very friendly (at least more so than urban life).

But I think the real advantage in friendliness (an this article appear to miss this) has to go to rural areas. From the article: "So, turning it around, it says that interaction is higher where densities are lower."

It says something that the options we are presented with are urban and suburban. But there are still many of us who still choose the rural life, and find it to be the friendliest sort of life.

Craver Vii said...

The weather was starting to get cold when we moved to the suburbs from Chicago. We loved the friendly look of the neighborhood.

It was neat that one of the neighbors surprised us by bringing a "breakfast pizza" (it's in the omelette family) on our very first morning at the new house. Because of that, I expected to see a lot of door-do-door acts of random kindness.

Actually, most of my neighbors remained hidden until the spring; that's when neighbor-relationships budded right along with the flowers and the trees.

Now I have new neigbors on one side, but I don't like them. They play their music too loud and visitors honk instead of ringing the doorbell. (Philistines!) I know I need to be a good neigbor, but just between you and me, I wish they would go away.