Lonely in the City?

A new study says that when it comes to social life, urbanites are missing out. By Kiera Butler

Environmentally speaking, urban sprawl is a real headache. As city boundaries creep ever outward, housing developments take over wild areas. Farms disappear. People rely more and more on their cars—and the fossil fuels it takes to power them. Because of the negative impact of sprawl, some cities, like Portland, Ore. have even passed legislation that limits outward urban expansion.

Among greenies, the consensus is clear: When it comes to lessening our environmental footprint, high-density communities are the way to go. And some have suggested that they’re better for our social lives, too, as city-dwellers have so many opportunities to interact with others.

But a new study by economists at the University of California at Irvine and Dublin City University in Ireland suggests that the opposite may be true. Using data collected from a survey of 15,000 people living all over the U. S., the researchers arrived at some surprising conclusions: They found that when density decreased by 10 percent, residents’ weekly interactions with their neighbors increased by 10 percent, and involvement in hobby-oriented clubs increased by 15 percent.

“People have thought that one of the consequences of urban sprawl is lower interaction among people,” says Jan Brueckner, of U.C. Irvine, who led the study. “That argument has been used to add to the condemnation of urban sprawl. But our studies show that this is exactly wrong.”

But Eben Fodor, an urban planning consultant and author of Better not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community, is skeptical about the findings. Part of the problem, he said, was how the economists measured socialization. Surveyors asked respondents how often they visited with their immediate neighbors, how many close friends they had, and whether they participated in a hobby-oriented club or organization, for example. 

Fodor points out that the study doesn’t take into account the fact that when it comes to socializing, city-dwellers might behave very differently than their suburban and rural counterparts. The surveyors did not ask the respondents, for instance, whether they were involved in a religious community, whether they attended school, or how much they socialized with their extended families.

“People in rural areas really have to seek out the mechanisms for interactions, whereas people in urban areas find those mechanisms exist organically throughout the community,” says Fodor.

Brueckner said he hadn’t yet figured out the reasons behind his findings, but one possibility was an old aphorism: Good fences make good neighbors. “If you’re jammed together with your neighbors, maybe you don’t want to have them forced upon you socially,” he said.  

But that, Brueckner said, was only a guess. “This opens up a whole bunch of further questions,” he said.

In the meantime, Fodor hopes that green groups will continue to educate people about sprawl. “Environmental organizations need to remind people why we decide to have an urban growth boundary and not expand beyond it,” he says.