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Building sociable cities

by Julie Davis
May 02, 2013

Neither Kathleen Dragan nor her husband, Grant, grew up in a city. Dragan spent her childhood in Virginia, living on four acres of an old apple orchard and Grant’s hometown on the banks of New River in West Virginia had a population of 10 people. Yet now they are living in Chicago and both are committed to raising their two children in the city.

“We’re really outside of what we grew up with, but we are such believers in urban parenting. It’s really enriching. We will actively seek to live in a city forever because we just prefer it.”

Dragan is part of a Mom and Tots group in the South Loop. The group includes as many as 150 families and part of the group meets nearly every day at neighborhood parks, city museums, or restaurants around the loop. She credits Chicago’s parks and public transportation as some of the resources that make the city a great place to be a parent.

“If it weren’t for those public spaces where we can get together, this wouldn’t happen so organically,” said Dragan.

Researchers at the University of Utah have developed tangible measures for how the city structure affects the ability of residents like Dragan to socialize.

Chicago is one of 42 metropolitan areas in the United States that the researchers studied. Their research focused not on social factors, such as crime or divorce, but instead on the structure of city's design. The team found that Chicago’s traits as a big city had a positive effect on social interaction potential, but its fragmented neighborhoods negatively affected its residents’ opportunities for face-to-face interaction with their peers.

“From my perspective, the important scientific thing is to show that certain types of planning decisions that we make about our cities could have negative impacts on social interaction potential.” Said Steve Farber, head researcher for the study published in the Journal of Transport Geography in April.

Using a model they call the social interaction potential, Farber determined how feasible it is for residents to meet up with friends or coworkers after work. The model specifically measures the possibility of weeknight socializing, assuming residents have about 90 minutes to socialize and commute home.

Farber then calculated the negative relationship between residents’ ability to socialize and characteristics of urban sprawl including population and population density, land area, and highway density among others.

In all, Farber measured 35 traits of cities. The traits fall broadly into five categories: decentralization or the lack of a strong central downtown; fragmentation, meaning neighborhoods separated by vacant or underutilized areas; “long travel” or long commute times; big cities; and low mixing or neighborhoods devoted only to residential use or only commercial use.

Large cities tended to have a greater opportunity for interaction, while low mixing did not have an effect either way. However, three categories negatively affected social interaction. According to the study the negative effects of decentralization on social interaction potential was more than seven times that of fragmentation, and nearly 20 times that of long commutes.

“If you have a lot of people working in one strong core, that means that after work, all those people … have easy access to one another, which is going to make it easier for them to have social interactions,” said Farber.

While the study points out a number of cities that scored well and a number that scored poorly for each of the five categories, ranking cities was not the focus of Farber’s work.

“That was a whole can of worms I didn’t want to get into,” Farber said. “The goal of my research was to say 'let's objectively characterize urban form and then let’s look at the relationship between urban form and social interaction potential.'”

In future research, Farber hopes to take a closer look at the kinds of places that make social interaction possible in a city.

“We haven’t actually looked at what kinds of places are there for social interaction. Are there bars and restaurants and parks?” said Farber. “Some cities might have a lot of potential but then that potential isn’t met because the right facility isn’t at the spot in the city.”