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Junk Science Week: #1 - A Sense of Community

Feb 19


This is Junk Science Week at the Antiplanner. Each day, I will present an example of how planners rely on junk science to justify some of their more inane ideas. Today, I will focus on New Urbanism and the sense of community.

First, it is worthwhile asking why planners seem to believe in so much junk science. In previous posts, I’ve presented reasons why planning can’t work: the systems planners want to plan are simply too complicated for anyone to deal with. Because there is no real scientific support for planning, planners instead turn to junk science.

Junk science, or as some prefer to call it, pseuodoscience, refers to the use of apparently scientific concepts or data to give a patina of authority to various claims that are not really supported by the data. One symptom of junk science is that people who question the science are often subjected to ad hominem attacks rather than debates over the accuracy of the information.

Junk scientists often work by finding a set of data — any data. It doesn’t matter if the data were scientifically collected or even if they measure anything that is closely related to what the junk scientists are trying to prove. Once they have the data, they search it to see if they can find any correlations. Once they have found such correlations, they assume that correlation proves causation. They then declare that they have proved their point, whatever that is.

One of the nation’s preeminent junk scientists is Robert Putman, whose book, Bowling Alone purports to prove that Americans’ sense of community is collapsing. Putnam gathered together hundreds of polls, surveys, and other data sets, none of which directly measured community, but which together proved, he claimed, that America’s sense of community was declining. For example, the data he found measured such things as “dwindling trust between adults and teenagers” and “the changing observance of stop signs.”

Only two of Putnam’s data sets compared suburbs with cities. One measured the percentage of people who served as officers or committee members of a local group. The other measured the percentage of people who had attended a public meeting on town or school affairs. Both data sets showed higher participation in the suburbs than in the central cities (p. 206). If these things measure a sense of community, Putnam’s conclusion should have been that people have a greater sense of community in low-density suburbs than in high-density cities. Instead, Putnam made the amazing claim that mobility and sprawl somehow “undermines civic engagement and community-based social capital” (p. 205).

Based on this thinly supported claim, Putnam somehow calculated that “suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl . . . account for perhaps 10 percent” of the decline in community participation (p. 283). He therefore strongly endorsed New Urban planning as a way of restoring our sense of community. “It is surely plausible that design innovations like mixed-use zoning, pedestrian-friendly street grids, and more space for public use should enhance social capital,” he wrote (p. 408). In other words, Putnam proposed to apply to the suburbs the same features that are found in the cities that (according to his measures) have a lower sense of community than the suburbs.

Here is a clear example of someone reading their preconceived notions into data sets that are only remotely related to their central thesis. I am not persuaded that any of Putnam’s data actually measure our sense of community. But to the extent that they do, Putnam simply ignored his numbers and claimed exactly the opposite of what those numbers said.

Of course, the idea that suburbs cause of loss of a sense of community, and that New Urbanism can restore it, long preceded Putnam’s book. The 1991 Ahwahnee Principles, which were the original New Urban manifesto, stated that “Existing patterns of urban and suburban development” contribute to “the loss of a sense of community.”

That sense could be restored, the principles added, by following New Urban designs: compact, walkable communities built around civic and cultural centers. Just two years later, one of the first books on The New Urbanism focused on the claim that it was an “architecture of community.”

The architects who wrote these principles had no evidence for their claims, so they naturally embraced Putnam when his book came out. Yet the fact is that much social science literature in the past has blamed cities, not suburbs, for reducing people’s sense of community. (This literature is reviewed in this article, which argues that cities probably aren’t a big problem either.)

More recently, a study by researchers at the University of California and Dublin University reexamined Putnam’s claim that suburbs lead to a loss in community. The study concluded that suburban residents have more friends, more contact with neighbors, and greater involvement in community groups than residents of dense urban neighborhoods.

Of course, this is the same thing that Putnam found. But, unlike Putnam, the researchers concluded that this showed that suburbs do not contribute to a loss in a sense of community. Based on this, the researchers could find no justification for land-use regulation mandating New Urban design. That doesn’t stop planners today from endlessly promoting New Urban designs as a way of restoring people’s supposedly lost sense of community.

When it comes down to it, “sense of community” is perfect for planners. It is not quantifiable, but it taps into everyone’s loneliness and nostalgia for some mythical past when everybody loved one another. (When was that exactly? The 1930s? The 1890s? You’ve got to be kidding.) New Urban developments attract people from a narrow socioeconomic class, so of course they feel a sense of community with one another.

I, too, have a sense of community, in fact, multiple communities: rail fans; Belgian Tervuren dog lovers; and road cyclists, among others. Yet there are few, if any, people in my neighborhood who belong to any of these communities. Fortunately, I have the telephone, Internet, air travel, and yes, even the automobile to bring me together with others in these communities.

As the late Melvin Webber pointed out more than forty years ago, we now enjoy community without propinquity. People who say we need to reshape urban areas in order to improve our sense of community have simply closed their eyes to the real communities of the past fifty years.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner