Surprisingly Friendly Suburbs

I’ve seen several news reports recently on a study by Jan K. Brueckner of UC Irvine finding some surprising results on neighborly friendliness as a function of population density. There’s a popular impression that people living in cities have good relationships with their neighbors, while those in suburbs live more isolated lives and have few neighborhood connections. In fact this is often argued as a reason why planners should encourage greater density communities and avoid suburban sprawl.

Brueckner examined this relationship using data from the Social Capital Benchmark Survey, which includes measures of neighborhood contact and friendships. Surprisingly, he found that the relationship went in the inverse direction from what had long been assumed. Suburbanites were more likely to have friendships and good relationships with their neighbors than city dwellers. This factor should therefore argue in favor of suburban sprawl and against concentrated development (of course other considerations are relevant as well).

While not a bias per se, assumptions which are widely held but which turn out to be wrong are an important source of error. We should be alert for news which gives us reason to reverse our opinions on factual matters.

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  • MCP2012

    Interesting results, Hal. Echoing the late Jane Jacobs (with a pinch of F.A. Hayek thrown in too boot), however, it is arguably the fiasco of (so-called) “urban renewal” and “urban planning” that has screwed-up the *urban* social ecology and its overlapping & evolving “spontaneous orders”, and exascerbated “flight” out into the suburbs over the last 30-50 yrs. That said, however, it IS nice to see some *defense* of suburban (so-called) “sprawl”. Perhaps the answer that will evolve over the next 10-40 yrs is movement(s) toward sophisticated (NON-anthillish) archologies of various sorts, which would provide many of the amenities of the suburbs and yet also many of the logistical niceties of more concentrated “urban” social ecologies. Nanotech and robotech would seem to be congenial/convivial to such an evolution. We shall see. (I myself am, for the nonce, definitely a suburbanite, btw, ;). )

  • This is a noteworthy result, but I teach Urban Economics on occasion, and it still seems that the weight of the evidence is that overall density is too low, rather than too high. It is not obvious that whether or not you know your immediate neighbors is associated with much of a market failure, whereas there are other market failures more clearly associated with low density. Interestingly, instead of correcting for this bias, for the most part government land use policy pushes lower, rather than higher, density. See:

  • Does the study correct for class or other economic indicators?