As our political discourse generates derision and dissension, our time in the virtual world crowds out our time in the actual one, and trust in our institutions and one another has plummeted, local places such as markets, libraries, and coffee shops can help. A new study shows that living near community-oriented public and commercial spaces brings a host of social benefits, such as increased trust, decreased loneliness, and a stronger sense of attachment to where we live.
Americans who live in communities with a rich array of neighborhood amenities are twice as likely to talk daily with their neighbors as those whose neighborhoods have few amenities. More important, given widespread interest in the topic of loneliness in America, people living in amenity-rich communities are much less likely to feel isolated from others, regardless of whether they live in large cities, suburbs, or small towns. Fifty-five percent of Americans living in low-amenity suburbs report a high degree of social isolation, while fewer than one-third of suburbanites in amenity-dense neighborhoods report feeling so isolated.
These new findings are based on a nationally representative survey that measured how closely Americans live to six different types of public and commercial spaces: grocery stores; restaurants, bars, or coffee shops; gyms or fitness centers; movie theaters, bowling alleys, or other entertainment venues; parks or recreation centers; and community centers or libraries. By combining these spaces into a single scale, we were able to identify three distinct community types: high-, moderate-, and low-amenity neighborhoods. Americans in high-amenity communities live on average within walking distance of four of the six types of neighborhood amenities. Americans in moderate-amenity communities are on average no more than a short car trip (five to 15 minutes) away, while low-amenity residents live on average a 15-to-30-minute drive from all six types of amenities.
We found that 23 percent of Americans live in high-amenity communities, close to half (44 percent) live in moderate-amenity communities, and one-third (33 percent) live in low-amenity communities. But more notable is the effect that living near these amenities has on how we relate to our communities and to one another.
While high-amenity residents exhibit a range of more positive social behaviors and attitudes, it’s also true that these communities are geographically and demographically distinct from moderate- and low-amenity communities. High-amenity neighborhoods tend to be more urban and include a greater proportion of white non-Hispanic residents and residents with more formal years of schooling. To fully capture the independent influence of neighborhood amenities, we constructed three statistical models that controlled for these important geographic and demographic differences. The results show that even after taking account of educational background, race and ethnicity, ideology, income, age, and urbanity, people who live closer to neighborhood amenities are more trusting, are less socially isolated, and express greater satisfaction with their community.
For instance, residents in high-amenity urban neighborhoods are twice as likely to say people in their community are “very willing” to help their neighbors compared with urban dwellers in low-amenity areas. High-amenity suburban residents are three times as likely to say the same compared with those in low-amenity suburban areas. High-amenity urbanites and suburbanites are roughly twice as likely as their low-amenity counterparts to say they trust their neighbors a great deal. A similar pattern is evident when it comes to trusting co-workers.
Access to more community-oriented spaces is also associated with increased confidence in local government. Even though we are bitterly divided by politics, and confidence in federal and state governments is in decline, people in vibrant neighborhoods have a greater level of confidence in their local government than those living in amenity-poor places. Americans living closer to neighborhood restaurants, bars, parks, and libraries are nearly twice as likely as those living in places where these things are largely absent to say they trust local government (39 percent versus 22 percent). Having access to neighborhood amenities also correlates with how we think about our capacity to make a difference in politics.
Many of the things that we lament are missing from our political and social life, such as mutual concern, a sense of belonging, and helpfulness, are found in greater degrees in communities that have a sense of place, or at least enough ingredients to make a well-rounded community. Urbanists have consistently found that proximity to core community assets such as grocery stores raise property values. These new data show that proximity has an even wider range of benefits, such that it should increasingly play a role in policy deliberations.
When Tracy Stannard and her business partner reopened the defunct Broad Branch Market in a quiet corner of northwest Washington, D.C., they were not certain how the neighborhood would respond. “We decided to stock only things we like so if we couldn’t sell anything, at least we could eat the food,” says Stannard. But in no time, the market became a central part of community life, serving up hot food, coffee, and ice cream. On Thursday nights, the market hosts live music for children who are omnipresent—the local elementary school sits kitty-corner to the market.
To neighborhood residents, Broad Branch Market is much more than a place to pick up milk. And other communities need the benefits it provides—whether they receive them from libraries or parks or grocery stores. We should factor these important findings about community design into how and where we build our schools, design our local workforce systems, and build more affordable housing. Communities that blend a healthy mix of amenities, such as schools, community centers, and grocery stores, improve our social well-being in ways that our arguments over politics never will.