Photo simulation by Steve Price

Socially sustainable communities are more than friends and families

'Weak ties' are the strings that thread their way through the social fabric, allowing information, culture, and work to flow. Fragmented communities break down those ties.

Articles in the popular press have suggested that there’s an epidemic of loneliness, that Americans have fewer and fewer meaningful connections to other people. Studies show that unrelieved loneliness has physiological effects leading to higher rates of morbidity and mortality, especially in older adults,[i] and may be fueling the opioid crisis and upticks in suicide rates. Yet loneliness is an imperfect indicator that something is socially awry in America. It’s not so much whether Americans have social lives or not, but rather what form that social life takes.

The design of our cities and towns can produce social deprivations that don’t trigger feelings of loneliness, yet are grave. America is experiencing increasing social fragmentation, a form of social deprivation. People can be cozy with friends, sustained by family, and flush with Facebook friends in a society of declining civic values and increasing social inequities. There is no one explanation for this, but the legacies of sprawl development are contributing factors: the deconstruction of public spaces, the geographic segregation of Americans by class and race, and the elevation of private experience over public.

Too many suburbs are failing to provide their residents with the support they need to get ahead. According to 2017 Brookings Institute testimony to Congress, “Suburbs in the country’s largest metro areas saw the number of residents living below the poverty line grow by 57 percent between 2000 and 2015. . . . Suburbs have become home to more poor residents than cities.”[ii] Physical dispersion of people in many suburbs, with the lack of opportunities for people to serendipitously encounter each other in public spaces, or even physically see people outside of the house or workplace, handicaps an individual’s ability to make productive connections with others. Being “well connected” should not just be a description of the wealthy.

Lonely feelings are not so bad if the feelings prod us into positive community engagement—assuming there is an intact physical community to engage with. Many can dodge the loneliness bullet because of strong ties to family and friends, but without physical community and the acquaintances it can provide, family and close friends may give us feelings of contentment without equipping us to meet existential threats.

Weak ties are powerful

In the 1970s, sociologist Mark Granovetter wrote a widely discussed paper distinguishing strong social ties between family and friends from weak ties between acquaintances, colleagues, and neighbors. A community of people tied together only by strong ties will be a fragmented one:

“Individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market, where advancement can depend . . . on knowing about appropriate job openings at just the right time. Furthermore, such individuals may be difficult to organize or integrate into political movements of any kind.”[iii]

Weak ties are the strings that thread their way through the social fabric, supporting and nourishing these clumps of intimates, allowing flows of information, culture, and work that lead to learning and opportunities. The benefit is reflected in the old dictum, “If you want to learn about something, ask somebody who knows. If they don’t know, ask somebody who knows somebody who knows.” The term “weak ties” belies their importance for strong community.

The emotional coziness of family and friends shouldn’t be so idealized that they make us undervalue and obstruct these seemingly casual connective threads. Whole societies are held back because of cultural dissuasion against engaging with strangers. In America, the strong ties of family life are highly valued. Traditionally so were the casual ties that transcend kin, clan, and tribe. Alexander Hamilton remarked about a colonial tavern he visited, that it offered “a genuine social solvent with a very mixed company of different nations and religions,” and from this regular and informal gathering “developed an amazing number of social clubs of a more carefully organized type.”[iv]

There is much debate among researchers about the primary importance of strong or weak ties. Like everything in life, it depends on the situation. For political activism, strong ties can be where ideas and passions are grown. As anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Strong ties can be the creative crucible for social change. Weak ties are still needed to get the group’s ideas out into the larger world. In any case, both strong and weak ties are necessary for healthy resilient communities.

In a consumer society selling comfortable furnishings and gadgets that promise privacy and control, entreating citizens to leave the house and involve themselves with strangers is a moral and civic challenge. One hundred and eight-five years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville warned in Democracy in America, “Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.”[v] He warned of American citizens shutting themselves up in a “narrow selfishness, marked out by four sunk fences and a quickset hedge.”[vi]

Socially malnourished and not knowing it

In 2014, Australian researchers reviewing data from American colleges and high schools reported an overall increase in extraversion and self-esteem, but not loneliness, among high school students.[vii] (In the 1950s, less than 10 percent of teens said they were “very important persons.” A half century later, over 80 percent said so.[viii]) Yet the research showed high school students with weakening social networks. The researchers distinguished two different things: subjective feelings of being lonely, left out, and longing for friendship, which they call “subjective isolation,” versus “social network isolation,” a measure of social support. Rather than describing feelings, social network isolation denotes whether an individual is well connected enough to get help from people in a time of need. The teens were not very lonely, but also not well connected.

An analogy can be made with hunger versus malnutrition. Loneliness, like hunger, is a natural indicator of immediate organismic need and is made obvious to the person by physical feelings. Social network deprivation, like malnutrition, is not so obvious. People may not feel hunger yet be malnourished, a phenomenon all too common when junk food replaces healthy food. Likewise, people can feel socially satisfied, but actually be socially precarious. People in poor neighborhoods may have close friends and families, but not know anyone who can inform them about job opportunities. Seniors in affluent neighborhoods may have friends all over the world, but not have neighbors to check in on them if they fall. People who live alone can be happy in their solitude, yet research from Brigham Young University shows data revealing that such voluntary solitude shortens life.[ix] Although the high school students were content with a handful of friends and few acquaintances, that may not be enough support in an emergency: feelings of self-sufficiency and independence can be a dangerous illusion.

Divided we fall

America’s growing social inequities are affected by the selfish machinations of privileged and wealthy people, but the fault also lies with the decline of walkability of our towns and cities and the idealization of cozy domesticity. We are living in times of ever-increasing frequency of disasters. Worldwide the number of natural catastrophes that resulted in insurable losses increased three-fold over the last 35 years.[x] These numbers will increase as climate change effects increase. If disaster strikes, you don’t want to be living in a balkanized town divided into family fiefdoms, cliques, and tribes. We need residents of our towns and cities to know each other, even if just casually. Three or four intimates may not be enough, or even available, to help you survive a massive storm, earthquake, or fire.

A good test of the quality of casual connectedness in a neighborhood is if people know each other by name. Research from the 1980s found that neighborhood streets that ignore the needs of pedestrians and are overly wide with fast moving vehicles, deter social interaction between neighbors, making them anonymous to each other.[xi] Police departments say that simply knowing who neighbors are is a significant deterrent to crime. An auto-oriented suburb defined by wide streets that don’t connect, residential areas divided by class, and a population that spends almost all of its time in houses, cars, and office cubicles, thwarts the conditions for an expansive social life that helps in times of trouble.

Walkability is not enough

Nevertheless, walkable urban form does not guarantee healthy community life. The nation has plenty of neighborhoods with narrow interconnected streets, buildings close to sidewalks, and the vestiges of neighborhood centers, yet the places are depressed. Poor neighborhoods are not the only problem. Newer, more prosperous places that have active sidewalk-oriented retail, street trees and lamps, and lots of people living densely in nearby apartment buildings, can still fail to interconnect people.

Democracy is dependent on the willingness, interest, and ease of ordinary people to engage with different people in discussions about the issues of the day. In many communities, attendance at city council and PTA meetings looks pretty good even if there are no discernable town centers and everyone drives all the time. Civic life may appear to be alive and well, but are different ethnicities, races, classes, and immigrant groups at the meetings? Do people see, meet, and talk with each other in public places? Those places shouldn’t impose unaffordable entry costs against the people who would most benefit from being there. Does visiting those places require a car or a wad of money in your pocket?

Urban form and the culture of the community should be mutually reinforcing. The terms “transit-oriented development,” “walkability,” and “compact urbanism,” don’t capture this essential quality of casual connectedness that makes for healthy democratic life. The terms describe elements that are important for a sustainable, post-carbon future but one of the greatest threats to the planet is an uninformed public that won’t engage enough to vote. That people can walk to a transit stop from an apartment building is a net positive, but is it enough?

Inviting public spaces are crucial places where you can develop acquaintances outside your small inner circle. Are there parks, public squares, and coffee shops in your neighborhood? Some see these things as harbingers of gentrification, but they are not just accoutrements of the comfortable. Every neighborhood needs these meeting places. Social life should scale from the cozy and comfortable to the neighborly and civic, for rich and poor alike. We should design our towns and cities to make that possible.

[i] John T. Cacioppo, Louise C. Hawkley, Greg J. Norman, Gary G. Berntson, “Social isolation,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, June 8, 2011

[ii] Brookings Institute, “Testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, Subcommittee on Human Resources,” February 15, 2017

[iii] Mark Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited,” Sociological Theory, Volume 1, (1983, John Wiley & Sons), p. 201-233.

[iv]  Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place, (1985, New York: Paragon House)

[v] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2, (1835, New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), p. 98.

[vi] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 1, (1835, New York: Vintage Books, 1945), p. 260.

[vii] D. Matthew, T. Clark, Natalie J. Loxton, Stephanie J. Tobin. “Declining Loneliness Over Time: Evidence From American Colleges and High Schools, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, November 2014.

[viii] Tim Elmore, “What Really Cultivates Self Esteem in Students?” Psychology Today, September 19, 2013.

[ix] J. Holt-Lunstad, T. B. Smith, M. Baker, T. Harris, D. Stephenson. “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2015.

[x]  Peter Hoeppe,Trends in weather related disasters – Consequences for insurers and society,” Elsevier, 2016

[xi] Donald Appleyard, Livable Streets, (1981, University of California Press)

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