CRITICS ARE WRONG: SUBURBAN RESIDENTS FEEL A STRONG SENSE OF COMMUNITY
COLUMBUS, Ohio – People who live in traditional small-town neighborhoods use their cars less than do people living in the suburbs, but they don’t feel a stronger sense of community, a new study found.
The results suggest that the growing popularity of “neotraditional” developments – which are designed like small towns -- fulfill only some of the claims of proponents.
“Neotraditional developments may help residents rely less on their cars for transportation, but it won’t have any impact on how close people feel to their neighbors,” said Jack Nasar, author of the study and professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University.
These findings refute criticisms that suburbs are cold and sterile and alienate people from their neighbors, Nasar said. In both type of developments – traditional and suburban – residents generally felt a close sense of community with their neighbors.
The study appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research.
In neotraditional developments, builders create a tightly-clustered, walkable village modeled after the classic American small town. Houses are close together, the streets are narrow, and grocery stores, businesses, and parks and recreation are within easy walking distance. Proponents have argued that these types of communities foster a stronger sense of community because people are less isolated than they are in suburbs: they are encouraged to walk rather than drive, and they actually live closer to each other.
Nasar studied residents of two areas near Columbus that represent a small-town neighborhood and a classic suburb.
One area is the downtown area of Westerville, a small traditional town, similar to what neotraditional developments are modeled after. The other neighborhood is a suburban development within a few miles of Westerville.
Nasar used a Geographical Information System (GIS) map that indicated that the traditional development had four different uses – residential, businesses, schools and parks – within a quarter mile of any location in the area. The suburban area had only housing or housing plus park space within a quarter mile of any location.
He then surveyed 60 randomly selected residents in each community – for a total of 120 people – about various issues regarding their auto use, sense of community, and other related issues.
Residents in both areas chose their neighborhoods for similar reasons, the survey found. In both areas, residents said safety, schools and quiet atmosphere were the top reasons for selecting their neighborhoods.
As advocates of neotraditional developments would predict, residents of traditional neighborhood did use their cars less than did the suburban residents. For example, 100 percent of the residents in the suburban community said they used their cars all the time for grocery shopping, compared to only 85 percent of those in the traditional neighborhood.
Advocates of neotraditional developments would argue that since residents in these communities use their cars less, they probably socialize more with their neighbors and thus have a stronger sense of community. But this study found no evidence of such an advantage in a traditional neighborhood, Nasar said.
In order to measure sense of community, Nasar asked residents a variety of questions, such as whether they could find someone in their neighborhood to talk to, whether they could ask their neighbors for help in an emergency, and whether they were involved in everyday activities with their neighbors.
Overall, residents in both the traditional community and the suburban community felt very good about their relations with neighbors.
“Critics attack suburbs as being cold and sterile, but that isn’t necessarily the case,” he said. “We found that suburban residents were quite friendly with each other and felt a part of their community.”
Nasar said the results suggest that both suburbs and traditional (or neotraditional) neighborhoods can be good places to live.
“People should live in the kind of neighborhood that appeals to them. Neotraditional neighborhoods do have certain efficiencies that suburbs don’t have – they may promote less auto use and more walking,” Nasar said. “But suburbs also have many good qualities, and the residents are neighborly to each other.”