Urbanisation killing social interactions?

Growth of suburbs away from the centre of the city makes social cohesion difficult

TrafficA new study by University of Utah researchers, published in the Journal of Transport Geography, indicates that citizens living in decentralised cities face the biggest difficulty in socialising.

It is important for the individual as well as the city as a whole that all citizens interact with each other on a personal basis.

With long commutes and population scattered across far-flung areas, there is immense pressure on time. Social activities are the first to get the axe when individuals are short on time. A city may suffer unforeseen consequences if its citizens act only in personal interest and are not aligned socially as a community.

"Social activities promote the relationships, shared knowledge and experiences that build valuable social capital that will make the cities of the 21st century more successful and globally competitive," says Steven Farber, assistant professor of geography at the university.

The team tried to measure opportunities that people get to engage in face-to-face socialising and came up with a number “Social Interaction Potential”. The researchers focussed on calculating the possibilities for people in large metropolitan areas to get together after work.
Using census-tract data in the topmost 42 large cities in the United States, they simulated possible combinations of interactions at home and work locations in each city. There were millions of possible combinations and of course a supercomputer was required to make this study possible. To make the analysis more real, they also added an after-work time 'budget' of 90 minutes. We don’t have infinite time to spend in social activities and hence the budget.

This gave the researchers the ability to see both the possibilities and the constraints that an individual working at a particular location within a particular city had to interact with others – either near the work location or near the residential location.

The analysis revealed 5 key factors that reduce possibilities of social interaction:

  1. Decentralisation: Displacement of population and industry away from a central location
  2. City size: Size and density of the population
  3. Fragmentation: Areas of high population interrupted by large open spaces
  4. Polarisation: In a given area, mixing open spaces and high population
  5. Long commute times: Time that the population spends in travelling to work.

"We found that decentralization has 10 times the negative impact of fragmentation, and 20 times that of longer commute times," says Farber. "For planners and policy makers concerned about making our cities more vibrant, it is clear that intensifying development has the most positive effect on social interaction."

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