Thursday, 06 July 2006

Someone to talk to: the weakening of strong ties I was in a discussion the other day when someone calculated the amount of time his partner and one particular group of confidantes had spent chatting over the years (he came up with a figure of 762 hours, in case you're interested). To some of us, this ability to talk freely about things, and to weave in and out of personally important and trivial topics almost seamlessly, is either enviable or puzzling or both. Who do you talk to about important stuff? Who are your confidants? Probably not your neighbours, more likely kin and friends outside your neighbourhood. Now here's a sound paper by the US researchers who brought us a key paper on homophily ('birds of a feather') a few years ago - this time they've looked at core discussion networks in the USA comparing 1985 with 2004. They find surprising and disconcerting decline. The typical American discussion network has slightly less than one fewer confidant in it than it did in 1985; and an adult non-institutionalised American is much more likely to be completely isolated from people with whom he or she could discuss important matters than in 1985. The researchers suggest that 'the social environment of core confidants surrounding the typical American has become smaller, more densely interconnected, and more centred on the close ties of spouse/partner. The types of bridging ties that connect us to community and neighborhood have withered as confidant networks have closed in on a smaller core group.' I'm not sure to what extent this contradicts what we would expect. Don't we assume that most of us now have discretionary personal social networks on which to draw in case of need for informal counselling and support? We would expect there to be increasing educational homogeneity in these networks and the research appears to confirm that. Indeed the key explanatory factor seems to be educational attainment, not race or gender or age. There are all sorts of insights and questions thrown up by the research, and hopefully the debate will result in a little policy attention being paid to informal local social relations. Incidentally, before people rush to blame the internet for increasing social isolation, I'd urge caution in considering what constitutes 'internet use.' Keith Hampton when he was at MIT showed elegantly how web use is quite different from email use. The former is comparable to high tv use and is comparably bad for your social network. Email use is similar to telephone use and is comparably good for your social network. Probably for various reasons people who are not highly localised within their neighbourhoods will use the technologies of remote communication to strengthen existing contacts, not to diversify their networks through serendipitous face-to-face encounters. McPherson, M et al. Social isolation in America: changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American sociological review, 71, June 2006: 353-375.
Stirring up views about culs-de-sac The Times today has an article and an editorial about culs-de-sac, based on the draft Manual for Streets. It suggests that the government (meaning the consultants who are still consulting on the government's behalf) 'is calling the cul-de-sac's bluff.' I'm old enough to remember when the Times was a newspaper, so I was not surprised at what looks like shoddy journalism which, for example, in both pieces completely misrepresents Richard Jackson’s US research into sprawl, walkability, and bodyweight (mentioned in the Manual para 5.3.3). Two things I'd quite like to see: (i) some comparative research into sociability and connections with people beyond the street, in culs-de-sac and through streets; (ii) efforts to redesign through streets on the scale of culs-de-sac so as to promote opportunities for play, walking and sociability. And a question: not everyone can live within buggy-pushing distance of a 'centre' (shops, clinic, post office, cafe etc) so what are the arguments against their preferred choice of environment? People like culs-de-sac because most of the rest of street design has handed the street as a public space over to the car. MfS is part of the movement to change that; but maybe while arguments about car use feature strongly in the debate, as they should, considerations of social exclusivity in pseudo-enclaves don't, because we lack the sociological research. There does seem to be a “culs-de-sac bad, grids good” mentality around among professionals at the moment which is going to oversimplify the arguments grotesquely if we’re not careful. Judging by a BBC Radio London programme this morning, at least there's a debate starting, albeit a rather crude one. Fewer culs-de-sacs, in more defined circumstances, yes. More attention paid to density in urban centres, yes. And more home zones bringing down the scale of through streets and blocks, definitely. But allowing a message to get out that MfS is there to stamp out culs-de-sac might prove to be a bit of a public relations blunder. Finally, this is a cue for something which hopefully the SOLUTIONS project will bring to the surface - if we ask people where they want to live, many say a quiet bungalow in a cul-de-sac. So we can cover the country in low density sprawl cos that's what they want. If we ask them if they want green space and breathable air - yes we'll have that too please. But you can't. Ahah, a public policy issue that affects everyone - time to bring this debate into the public arena in a responsible intelligible way.

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