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Economist shows good fences do make good neighbors

Contrary to popular belief, space between residents increases interaction

A new study led by a UC Irvine economist debunks a popular argument against urban sprawl – that living farther from neighbors decreases social interaction. In fact, the data shows that suburban living is better for one’s social life.

Using data from 15,000 Americans living in various places across the country, researchers found that residents of sprawling suburban spaces actually have more friends, more contact with neighbors and greater involvement in community organizations than citydwellers who live in very close proximity to each other.

“Our findings suggest the old proverb may be true: good fences make good neighbors,” said Jan Brueckner, professor of economics at UCI and lead author of the paper. “This contradicts one of the common social and economic arguments against urban sprawl.”

Among their specific findings were that for every 10-percent decrease in density, the likelihood of residents talking to their neighbors at least once a week jumps by 10 percent. And involvement in hobby-oriented clubs increases even more significantly – by 15 percent for every 10 percent decline in density. To measure these and other social interactions, researchers used data from the Social Capital Benchmark Survey and controlled for other factors such as income, education and marital status.

Opponents of urban sprawl – most famously Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam – have argued that America’s spreading development is detrimental to society, causing increased traffic congestion, loss of valuable open space and a decline in social relationships. To combat these perceived problems, some cities like Portland, Ore., have enacted urban growth boundaries to limit sprawl.

Brueckner says it’s important to understand the true impact of urban sprawl on traffic, open space and social relationships, because these all affect the economy.

“Strong social networks do more than just keep people happy and engaged,” said Brueckner. “The more friends you have and the more involved you are in your community, then the better are your labor market outcomes – shorter unemployment spells, better job matches – as a result of job referrals.” While the researchers say it’s still unclear exactly why denser city living decreases social interaction, Brueckner says people may be more willing to engage in activities like clubs, civic organizations and community events when they don’t feel forced upon one another. Another factor limiting social interaction in cities may be fear of crime, which discourages people from getting to know each other.

The working paper by UCI’s Brueckner and Ann Largey at Dublin City University is being published this month by the Center for Economic Studies & Ifo Institute for Economic Research, a major international research network based in Europe.

About the University of California, Irvine: The University of California, Irvine is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with more than 24,000 undergraduate and graduate students and about 1,400 faculty members. The second-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3.3 billion. For more UCI news, visit

Television: UCI has a broadcast studio available for live or taped interviews. For more information, visit

News Radio: UCI maintains on campus an ISDN line for conducting interviews with its faculty and experts. The use of this line is available free-of-charge to radio news programs/stations who wish to interview UCI faculty and experts. Use of the ISDN line is subject to availability and approval by the university.

Christine Byrd | EurekAlert!
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