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Communities Aren't Just Places, They're Social Networks

Cities are obviously more than just the sum of their physical assets — roads and bridges, offices, factories, shopping centers, and homes — working more like living organisms than jumbles of concrete. Their inner workings even transcend their ability to cluster and concentrate people and economic activity. As sociologist Zachary Neal of Michigan State University argues in his new book, The Connected City, cities are made up of human social networks. Neal took time to discuss his book and research with Atlantic Cities, explaining how cities work as living organisms and why what happens in Las Vegas cannot stay in Las Vegas.

RF: In the book, you write that "communities are networks, not places." Tell us about why and how networks matter to cities?

ZN: We often think of communities in place–based terms, like Jane Jacobs’ beloved Greenwich Village. But, whether or not a place like Greenwich Village is really a community has more to do with the residents’ relationships with one another — their social networks – than with where they happen to live or work. The danger of thinking about communities as places is that it can lead us to find communities where they don’t exist.  A neighborhood where the residents never interact is merely a place, but hardly a community. This can lead us to overlook communities that are not rooted in particular places, like a book club with a constantly changing venue.

Communities aren’t disappearing, but to find them we need to stop looking in places, and start looking in social networks.

What are the key factors that shape the networks of a connected city?

Despite claims of the death of distance, especially in a networked society, the most critical factor is still distance. But, when it comes to the connected city, at least three different kinds of distance — network, spatial, and social — are important.  Network distance refers to the number of links between two people: I am close to my friends, a bit further away from friends–of–friends, and so on.

Understanding how the connected city is organized is really a matter of understanding network distance: Why are some people close to one another in a network, while others are further apart? 

Spatial distance plays an important role because when two people live or work near one another, they are more likely to have chance encounters and interact. Social distance matters because when two people share political attitudes, or educational backgrounds, or even musical tastes, they are more likely to interact. This nearly universal tendency is known in the social network world as homophily. Thus, when two people are separated by short spatial distances (they live near each other) and/or short social distances (they like the same things), they are likely to be separated by short network distances (they interact with each other or have mutual friends).

You talk about the connection between social networks and the physical form of the city. How do these two things interact and shape one another? Does the design of streets, for example, influence who our friends are?

At an individual level, the street network directly shapes how we experience cities and can give different cities their distinctively different characters. Phoenix’s strictly regular street grid makes it hard to get lost, but also hard to distinguish one part of the city from the next. The organically meandering alleys of Venice almost guarantee one will get lost, but also facilitate the formation of little neighborhoods centered around tiny campos.

At a social level, the street network also shapes who we’re likely to run into, and thus who we’re likely to befriend. Two houses may be very close to one another. But if they’re separated by a busy highway, or are located on separate gated cul–de–sacs, it’s unlikely their occupants will ever see one another. When it comes to making friends, the physical distance between houses is less important than the walkable distance, which ultimately is a function of street network structure.

You say that "planners play a secondary role in the development of a street network’s overall structure." I’m sure Atlantic Cities readers would like to know more about that.

Cities are like organisms that metabolize people into wealth and ideas. A city’s street network plays the role of a circulatory system, distributing people — the city’s life-sustaining nutrients — to its various organs: schools, factories, etc. In order to grow and thrive, a city’s street network must be efficient, maximizing the flow of people while minimizing the cost of the infrastructure.

Here, the cities–as–organisms analogy deepens. Many cities’ street networks bear a striking resemblance to the circulatory systems of animals, the vascular systems of plants, and the river systems of watersheds, all of which nature and the laws of physics have favored as highly efficient.

One explanation is that planners, recognizing the efficiency of such branching network structures, adopted this design into their city plans. However, even unplanned ancient cities that emerged organically over centuries have street networks with these efficient structures.

This suggests that the formation of urban street networks is driven first by a logic of efficiency, and secondarily by planning considerations. This is certainly not to say that planners play no role, but rather that they must work within some relatively narrow parameters dictated by nature.

To what degree do influential people matter to the connected city? Who exactly are these influential people and how do they shape the networks of the connected city?

Being influential is usually viewed as a characteristic of an individual, for example, as when we say that the mayor is influential. But, thinking about influence as an individual characteristic misses how influence actually works.

Much like the tango, it takes two to be influential. Because influence can only occur between a person exercising influence and a person being influenced, saying that the mayor is influential isn’t enough; we must say influential over whom. Thinking about influence as a kind of relationship, rather than as personal characteristic, highlights that nearly everyone is influential over someone. So, yes, influential people matter a great deal in the connected city, but there are a lot of them.

The city is steered not by the actions of a single influential person or group, but by the circulation of influence through many people.

You write: "metropolitan character comes from the fact that the independent parts of these regions — cities, suburbs, towns — are really not independent at all, but are closely linked together in a variety of ways." Tell us more about that.

When it comes to legal issues of taxation or political jurisdiction, the formal administrative boundaries of independent cities matter a great deal. However, for nearly everything else that happens in cities, these distinctions fade into the background.

What makes Chicago Chicago has a lot to do with the City of Chicago itself, but has at least as much to do with its relationship to the surrounding agricultural towns that still fuel the Chicago Board of Trade, or with suburban Schaumburg where loft dwellers buy furniture from IKEA. The metropolitan character of Chicagoland is greater than the sum of its independent municipal corporations, but emerges from the symbiotic flow of pork in, and hipsters out.

Las Vegas offers an even more amplified example. If what happens in Vegas really did stay in Vegas, then it would hardly be Vegas at all. The city and its image critically depends on the import of tourists, and more importantly on the export of real or imagined stories to other cities in the Southwest and beyond.

All images from The Connected City.

Top Image: easyshutter /Shutterstock

Richard Florida is Co-Founder and Editor at Large at The Atlantic Cities. He's also a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Global Research Professor at New York University. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group, whose current client list can be found here. All posts »

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