social interaction in cities

Here’s an interesting article from the University of Bern, Switzerland, on social interaction in cities. The engineer in me likes to see some hard data and theory applied in the social sciences.

Cities and the Structure of Social Interactions: Evidence from Mobile Phone Data

Social interactions are considered pivotal to urban agglomeration forces. This study employs a unique dataset on mobile phone calls to examine how social interactions differ across cities and peripheral areas. We first show that geographical distance is highly detrimental to interpersonal exchange. We then reveal that individuals residing in high-density locations do not benefit from larger social networks, but from a more efficient structure in terms of higher matching quality and lower clustering. These results are derived from two complementary approaches: Based on a link formation model, we examine how geographical distance, network overlap, and sociodemographic (dis)similarities impact the likelihood that two agents interact. We further decompose the effects from individual, location, and time specific determinants on micro-level network measures by exploiting information on mobile phone users who change their place of residence.

And here’s a more touchy-feely article in Vox on how the U.S. suburban development pattern discourages social interaction.

the key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in school — because we are forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows…

This kind of spontaneous social mixing doesn’t disappear in post-collegiate life. We bond with co-workers, especially in those scrappy early jobs, and the people who share our rented homes and apartments.

But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere.

I buy this about 75%. I am lucky to live and work in a highly walkable urban neighborhood, and I do have a lot of friendly spontaneous interactions with people around the neighborhood. I have a “scrappy” job where I bond with my co-workers, like soldiers in the trenches. I am also a middle-aged family person and somewhat of an introvert. Part of the reason I don’t have a lot of close adult friendships outside of work and family is that between work and family, I have all the human interaction I can really handle. If I have 15 minutes free on a given day, I would rather spend it alone than interacting with yet another person. I suppose this could change when the kids get a little older and/or when I don’t have to work so much, assuming I live long enough for these things to happen. So I’m just saying there are family pressures, financial and career pressures, and personality differences that influence these things alongside urban form.

Back to the first article, it suggests that high school, college, band camp, and even most workplaces might not be the best model of the most fulfilling and productive social interactions that can develop among adults in the best cities. In high school and college we tend to form small, tight-knit groups where most people in the group network only within the group. The first article above, if I am interpreting it correctly, describes a case where not only are individuals interacting frequently within a social network, but relatively open social networks themselves are interacting with each other as individuals within them interact in random and freewheeling ways. It’s wonderful. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to sit on my couch for a little while, watch some TV, unwind and recharge so I can handle the social interaction that will be thrown at me tomorrow.

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