By Megan Link
Mixed land uses are associated with greater social cohesion, according to a new study. Dense places without diversity, however, can have the opposite effect. As walkable cities become a growing focus of urban planning and decision making, the social impacts on health, vibrancy, and social cohesion are often harder to quantify. The authors use open-source data to quantify and find correlations between urban infrastructure and form types with social cohesion. Understanding these relationships offers insights into the future of urban planning and decision making that balances density, diversity, and community connection.
There is a lack of consensus among urban theorists about how urbanization affects urban vitality and social cohesiveness. Some philosophies like new urbanism suggest that dense, walkable design encourages more social interaction, vitality, and cohesion for residents. Others argue that high-density development, aka walkable design, reduces the social connection between residents as interactions become anonymized and less meaningful. The two theories emphasize density without considering other factors, such as land diversity, that can affect social cohesiveness.
The researchers leveraged large open-data sources to analyze six U.S. metropolitan areas by neighborhood block group to determine walkability, along with a survey that measured neighborhood-level social cohesion, to identify the factors and relationships of a walkable environment and social connectedness. By looking at land use diversity, physical density, social density, and transit connectedness, correlations between the built environment and level of community connection could be determined.
The study concluded that land use diversity has a positive association with social cohesion, while both physical and social density have a negative effect on cohesion. As land use makes spaces more diverse and walkable, there are often more opportunities to meaningfully connect. Meanwhile, increased density leads to increased anonymity, where interactions may be less meaningful. These findings show support for both competing theories, implying there is a balance between the two that offers both urban vibrancy and cohesion in planning.
The authors note:
“We found that the effect of density is mediated by diversity, indicating that if our dense neighborhoods are also diverse, the negative effects are significantly reduced. Ultimately, the findings from this analysis demonstrate the value in rethinking the way we discuss “walkability” in the context of social cohesion… When considering urban form and the provision of infrastructure—including active mobility infrastructure, urban amenities, and land uses—findings from this research suggest the importance of the mix of uses when it comes to the social experience of cohesion, particularly in dense areas. These findings can aid the realms of urban planning, engineering, and policy when it comes to striving toward more cohesive and resilient communities. “