Common Place   /   August 7, 2014

Do Cities Tear Us Apart?—Part 2

Stephen Assink

Two Trends Changing Urban Communities Today

Many cultural observers once believed cities and religion simply would not mix. One early twentieth-century sociologist famously depicted peasant farmers abandoning their Catholic faith the moment their feet touched the ground in Paris's Montparnasse train station. Even as late as the 1960s, theorists like Peter Berger and Alasdair MacIntyre believed the experience of industrialized urban life was simply too fragmented to sustain a coherent religious belief system.

Today, these generalizations seem less plausible. Millions of city inhabitants—many coming from some of the world's most religious places—have found ways to combine modern urban living with devout religiosity. Strongly religious subcultures and diasporas have also thrived within densely populated pre-industrial, industrial, and now post-industrial urban centers.

So why did so many thinkers believe in an inherent conflict between religion and urbanization? In part one of this series, we looked at how many sociologists at the turn of the twentieth century believed that cities eroded interpersonal relationships, damaged traditional ways of life, and left people with a sense of anomie. With a cultural transition of this magnitude, then, the disappearance of religion seemed inevitable.

Although scholars have now moved beyond this "urbanist-determinism" theory, it has still drawn attention to the basic question of social cohesion in urban settings. Contemporary inquires locate similar concerns in citizenship activism and ethics as well as in broader areas such as architectural design and city planning where the goal is to prioritize organic interactions and to facilitate access to public goods.

To this end, I want to outline two trends that demographers and sociologists find to be prevalent across urban environments today. While hardly deterministic, these trends will unquestionably contribute to how cities preserve and develop social cohesion in coming decades.

The Rise of the Single-Person Household

As sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues, the world likely has more urban single-person households now than at any other time in history. Atlanta, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Denver, and Chicago are all made up of between 35 and 45 percent one-person households, compared to the national average of 28 percent. For Manhattan, the rate is about 50 percent, same for London, Paris, and Tokyo. Perth and Stockholm both top 60 percent. Urban areas in Southeastern Asia have some of the fastest growing rates of single-households. Seoul, South Korea, now at 24 percent is expected to top 33 percent in 2035; its popular trendsetting Gangnam district is already at 30 percent. While Singapore's rate is at a modest 9.2 percent, it has doubled in only a generation and will likely continue to increase.

What this means for social cohesion has yet to be seen, but more conservative-oriented and "social capital" scholars—focusing mainly on the rise of adults forgoing marriage and family—argue that the transition to the family life-stage has historically been crucial for communal life, taming anti-social behavior and embedding individuals in the shared life of playgrounds, schools, PTAs, and kids sports leagues. At least in the twentieth-century context, this stage in the US has also meant a turn (or return) to active involvement in religious congregations, a central generator of social capital. Thus, urban contexts with fewer households of families will likely lack key institutional resources that have historically been major avenues of interconnectedness.

Other thinkers tie this trend to the increasing power of market forces to mold societies into largely-detached household units. Highly-demanding careers—often filling the void that opens in the absence of familial ties—may drive emotional energy toward the workplace rather than toward civic and neighborhood involvement. Reinforcing this trend, advertisers seize upon the higher discretionary incomes of single-dwelling households to pitch lifestyles that often preclude meaningful ties to others. From this perspective, urban communities made up of single households could become, in Zygmunt Bauman's words, "shared physical spaces of consumption...without having any actual social interaction." Here not only the community health but also the mental health of residents may suffer, particularly among the elderly.

At the same time, this trend does not penetrate all subcultures or social classes with equal effects. And even in places where single households are growing, Eric Klinenberg has argued against the caricature of the socially withdrawn loner. While we may not yet know its full effects, the rise of urban communities of single-person households will likely create a demand for new forms (or reforms) of civic institutions that bring people together.

The Skyboxification of America

As a second demographic trend, today’s cities bring into near proximity places of sharply-contrasting life outcomes and well-being. Richard Florida has described this as the unprecedented rise of "compressed inequality" where well-maintained gated communities exist mere blocks away from blighted neighborhoods. A recent Washington Post article provides the means to locate one's own neighborhood amidst surrounding zip codes representing different educational and income levels.

Called the "skyboxification" effect, this trend means most daily urban experiences are likely dominated by interactions with those who demographically are most like us, in our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our grocery stores, our schools, our religious communities, and our choice of leisure activities. Chicago sociologist Robert Park was already observing this effect in 1925, noting that a city population tends to "segregate itself... in accordance with its tastes and temperaments." But scholars from across disciplines (and from across the political spectrum) have come to agree that American "skyboxification" has intensified in recent decades due to rising income inequality combined with deeply entrenched "neighborhood effects" that perpetuate negative life outcomes for certain areas. I will explore this narrowing of the urban community experience (the "homophily effect") in greater detail in part three of this series.

Rather than viewing these phenomena as some new form of urbanist-determinism, city planners and urban scholars should consider how these trends might shape communal life within the cultural and historical context of particular cities. As we saw in part one of this series, this multi-dimensional approach to cities—keeping the focus on the well-being and fulfillment of the people who make up a city—is one of the most valuable takeaways in the synthesis of earlier theories on the power of cities to shape our daily lives and interactions with others.

Andrew Lynn is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. His interests include sociology of religion, social change, and the cultural logic of individualism in American culture.