Revenge Of The 'Burbs

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 26 December 2006 16:00

The suburbs may be getting a bad rap.

Garage door canyons and cookie-cutter homes aren't necessarily hideouts for auto-driven recluses, as some planners would have you believe.

Suburbanites are actually friendlier, more outgoing and more likely to be social butterflies then their urban counterparts and the reasons they hook up more may also help them excel outside the neighborhood.

In what amounts to a sort of "Revenge of the Burbs" study, economics professor Jan Brueckner at University of California-Irvine and Ann Largey at Dublin City University Business School in Ireland joined to debunk a common argument against suburban sprawl -- that greater distances between neighbors makes for greater chasms between social interaction.

Just out, "Social Interaction and Urban Sprawl" found quite the opposite.

For every 10-percent decrease in density, the likelihood of residents talking to their neighbors at least once a week jumps by 10 percent.

What's more, involvement in hobby-oriented clubs increases even more significantly -- by 15 percent for every 10 percent decline in density.

"Our findings suggest the old proverb may be true: good fences make good neighbors," said Brueckner.

"This contradicts one of the common social and economic arguments against suburban sprawl."

Using data from 15,000 Americans living in various locations 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 those smug young professional urbanites and baby boomers in the reverse flight back downtown.

The study isn't likely to dull sharp criticism of suburban sprawl, blamed for costly pressure on the infrastructure, traffic, housing costs, lower income groups and the green belt.

But it is causing a small firestorm on the website for planners and developers. The online publication and others like it are rife with reports that insist car-driven lifestyles in the unwalkable hinterlands generate everything from higher gas prices and pollution to obesity and inner-city neglect -- not to mention hermit-like behavior.

"Bowling Alone" author Robert Putnam is perhaps the most outspoken critic of suburban life for stifling social interaction.

Examining a half million interviews over the past quarter of a century, Putnam found the nation impoverished by a weak fabric of social connection and suburban life gets some of the blame.

However, Brueckner and Largey say new urbanism doesn't appear to be helping people hook up.

While they admit it's unclear exactly why denser city living decreases social interaction, Brueckner says people may be more willing to engage in activities like clubs, civic organizations and community events when they don’t feel forced to meet people. The fear of crime could also cause core city residents to choose a fortress of solitude over getting out.

On the other hand, suburbanites are socially buzzing like it's 1999, and with some likely benefits the inner city hermits may not be enjoying.

"Strong social networks do more than just keep people happy and engaged," said Brueckner.

"The more friends you have and the more involved you are in your community, then the better are your labor market outcomes -- shorter unemployment spells, better job matches -- as a result of job referrals."

"Social Interaction and Urban Sprawl" is available for download.

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Broderick Perkins

A journalist for more than 35-years, Broderick Perkins parlayed an old-school, daily newspaper career into a digital news service - Silicon Valley, CA-based DeadlineNews.Com. DeadlineNews.Com offers editorial consulting services and editorial content covering real estate, personal finance and consumer news. You can find DeadlineNews.Com on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter  and Google+

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