Saturday, April 11, 2009


The hopeless fragility of the Smart Growth panacea seems obvious in the face of pressure from rapid population growth, developer-greed and corrupt local government. It does not particularly reap any ecological benefits either, contrary to conventional wisdom and the strident convictions of some environmental NGOs, Greens and social-democrats.

Cost to mental health

But there is another cost. The cost to mental health. There must be archives laden with data that draw a connection between population density and various negative social and psychological indicators. What do studies reveal about violent and non-violent crime rates in urban vs. rural settings? Suicide, divorce, single parent families, drop out rates etc etc. What do they say about psychological afflictions urban vs. rural?

It is counter-intuitive to me to suggest that claustrophobic conditions do not promote these problems.

Industrialization as a force to break-up families

More fundamentally, what about Emil Durkheim’s work on anomie more than a century ago? I read his seminal book Suicide as an undergrad. Irrefutable and devastating in its critique of industrialization as a force to break up extended families. He showed, essentially, that rural folks are happier than city folks. Peasants in Algeria did not commit suicide at nearly the rate as industrial workers in France living as they did in relative isolation from broader family and intimate village contexts.

Durkheim's insights confirmed

Now new data seems to confirm Durkheim’s insights. Insights that many of us have when we compare “boring” rural localities with the so-called “vibrant”, densely packed cities.

And, sociology professor James White of UBC just publicized his studies on loneliness in Canada.

As I interpret them, the frenetic urban lifestyle that of long work hours (to meet the urban cost of living), technology that encourages impersonal communications, and the mobility that comes from an unstable and dynamic free market economy, whose investment in social services never keeps pace with the profits it generates, all lead to great disconnections among people.

The rural paradox is that though people enjoy larger physical buffers between them (more space), they also enjoy more intimate relationships with those they meet in town and more cooperative relationships with further flung neighbours. This is not to white-wash the negative facts about intense gossip etc. in such environments. Professor White had this to say about the last two decades of Canadian social evolution:

Among the 45-64 age group, those who said that they had at least a couple of friends in 1990 were 3% fewer in number than those who made the same claim in 2006. Just 33% of Canadians who live in the large urban centres say that know all or some of their neighbours. The number of people who said that people can be generally trusted was, in 2006, just 53%, while 43% declared that “one cannot be too careful”.

One must remember that this in the context of more urbanization during this period.

More and more Canadians, as elsewhere, are living the Greenpeace dream of being concentrated in cities.

A 2006 study from Drake University and the University of Arizona who confessed that they have no one with whom they can discuss important matters almost doubled in the last 20 years. From 1985 to 2004 the mean number of friends with whom people could have an intimate, candid conversation dropped from 2.94 to 2.08.

Losing one third of your close friends is not a statistic that our soft green opponents would like to trot out in their euphoric descriptions of dense urban living in the smart-growth utopia of the future.

Canadian Green Party member, Mr. Erich Jacoby-Hawkins, lobbies for a massive population increase, fed by immigration, so that our cities can be even more packed, just so it becomes more economical for eco-friendly mass transit to replace the private car.

I will take a private car with three close friends over a life with two close friends and monorail commuting where no passengers dare to even look at each other never mind chat. Ever sat in a doctor’s waiting room--same experience. In the waiting room of the medical office in my village, 15 people will break the silence with a spontaneous group discussion.

Face to face communication accomplishes things that electronic connections don’t.

Don’t pin the blame on “technology”.

The anomie that comes just from too many strangers living so closely together has only created a demand for impersonal avenues of communication. And of course, these technologies—blackberries, cell phones, personal computers, in turn accentuate the divides.

Take one example from my mother’s experience. She was born in Vancouver in 1911. She observed that before the telephone became a household amenity, people dropped in on friends across the city or immediate neighbours too, who received them with typically friendly hospitality. Tea and bakery was proffered with enthusiasm. It was common for Vancouverites to carry “calling cards” with them in the event that the people they were visiting were not home.

When telephones became common in the late twenties, all this changed. People became more formal and found reasons to feel impatient and inconvenienced by unsolicited intrusions.

But before World War Two, even before 1960, hospitality and personal interaction still prevailed over the kind of withdrawn and threatened posture that we encounter today in our urban encounters. As a boy in the 50s, I remember loud, vocal, friendly exchanges between neighbours and even strangers while riding the bus home.

In Vancouver, of all places, Canada’s capital of cold anonymity.

No comments: