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Bowling Alone in Urbanistaville


Much has been written in recent years about the negative impacts of “sprawl.” It is said to increase traffic congestion, commute time and air pollution. It gobbles up agricultural lands and open space. It is also said to have serious social implications like bowling alone.  

            The book Bowling Alone (2000) by Robert Putnam puts forward the hypothesis and research that says that today we Americans sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. He says that we even bowl alone more. The author puts forward the theoretical conclusion, and is the progenitor of the theory, that this new loneliness may be caused, in part, by suburban sprawl. Let me be clear about this. Putnam researched the hypothesis of a less involved nation and backs it up with researched facts. But he did not research the possible reasons this may be so.

               Other academic researchers, like Jan Brueckner and Ann Largey, did investigate this hypothesis and their research says just the opposite is true. A major nationwide study done by these professors from Dublin City University and the University of California -- of some 15,000 individuals in average urbanized–area and MSA populations -- finds that:

  • “The frequency of interaction with neighbors is lower in high-density census tracts.”

  • “That residents living in dense census tracts have fewer confidants.”

  • “High tract density reduces the number of friends.”

  • “Interactive individuals sacrifice something by locating in dense tracts.”

  • “Membership in hobby-oriented club is less likely [in low-density tracts].”

  • “Group involvement tends to be weaker [in low-density tracts].”


               The statistical revelation behind all of these findings is that for every 10 percent increase in density, there is a 10 percent decrease in socialization. That’s a simple to understand 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. In fact, it is one supported by such scientific legends as the late Carl Sagan and Ian McHarg.

            Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, in their book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1993), make a compelling argument that humans are the result of 500 million years of DNA programming and the process of natural selection. They say that when it comes to primates, "If population density becomes too high, then mechanisms are set into motion to reduce it." These forces may include, "...fighting and domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, soaring infant and maternal mortality; psychosis... gay bashing; alienation, social disorientation and rootlessness..."

            Ian McHarg, the guru of ecological planning, in his book Design With Nature (1969) talks about a "pathological togetherness" whereas "density increases, so do social pressures, which manifest themselves in stress disease..." He basically agrees with Sagan and Druyan, and cites the same studies. He says the evolutionary reason for this pathological behavior is that "stress inhibits population growth." In other words, it’s nature's way of fighting increased density.

               The most interesting aspect of the research put forward by Brueckner and Largey is not that it finds suburban “sprawl” innocent of the charge of creating loneliness in American society. What is amazing is that the research finds just the opposite. People reported being more civically engaged in suburbia! This fact has drawn a lot of criticism from the New Urbanism devotees.

Robert Steutville, the publisher of the New Urban News, wrote an editorial about this research. In it he took the apologist, rationalization that “New urbanists advocate higher densities, but not increased socialization-rather because it brings more activities within walking distance.” He then goes on to say that “The authors manipulate the findings…” and says that “Although unproven, that may be partly true...”

            Are we to believe that these academic researchers manipulated the data? Or are we to believe the research does not conform to the belief system of New Urbanism? The fact is that the Congress of New Urbanism charter says that they are “committed to reestablishing the relationship between the art of building and making of community...” Is not increased socialization a key aspect of community-making? Without increased socialization are the New Urbanists promoting soulless place-making?

            The researchers state that “social interaction tends to be weaker, not stronger, in high-density census tracts.” Said another way, could social interaction tend to be stronger, not weaker in low-density census tracts? This counter argument interested me enough to actually contact one of the authors of the study. When asked if this were not so, researcher Jan Brueckner’s response was short and to the point: “Yes, that’s exactly what the paper says.”

               Putnam’s research shows that, as a nation, we are becoming more individually isolated and some of us may even be bowling alone. However, the disease of rampant “sprawl” is not to blame. Indeed, the question now is whether the problem “urbanism.” Putnam’s hypothesis puts forward some other possible reasons like the popularity of the Internet and television, and the substitution of financial capital for social capital. But, I will leave these assertions to some other university researchers to study and some other writers to essay.

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