Photo: Till Westermayer under a Creative Commons license.
At TreeHugger, we regularly extol the virtues of walkable neighborhoods and cities: denser urban areas have higher property values and a better quality of life; they consume less energy per capita than any other kind of environment, especially the suburbs (which make you fat). Now a study from the University of New Hampshire says that living in a walkable neighborhood yields social benefits as well.The study, titled "Examining Walkability and Social Capital as Indicators of Quality of Life at the Municipal and Neighborhood Scales," was led by Shannon Rogers, a Ph.D. candidate in UNH's Natural Resources and Earth System Science (NRESS) program. It involved a survey of 700 residents of twenty neighborhoods in Portsmouth and Manchester, NH. Respondents answered questions on the walkability of their neighborhood and on their social capital. A UNH press release explained the results:
Those living in more walkable neighborhoods trusted their neighbors more; participated in community projects, clubs and volunteering more; and described television as their major form of entertainment less than survey participants living in less walkable neighborhoods.
However, while the results seem persuasive, they should not be taken as scientifically conclusive:
Rogers cautions that the study's results are mitigated by a possible self-selection bias: "People who enjoy walking may choose to live in more walkable neighborhoods," she says, adding that it would be naïve to say this study "proves" that walkability affects social capital in neighborhoods.
Given that caveat, it still looks like a victory for dense, urban areas. Besides the health and environmental benefits you get from walking instead of driving, walking around a neighborhood increases the number of social interactions you have. Rogers points out that high levels of positive social capital correlate to higher quality of life, through improved health and economic conditions.
Study co-author John Halstead, an environmental and resource economist and professor of natural resources and the environment at UNH, said: "This study is significant because the relationship between physical community structure and social capital really hasn't been explored much. It says something about how we might design neighborhoods in the future not to just save gas but to increase social capital."
More on walkable neighborhoods:
Walk Score Ranks The Top 10 Most Walkable Cities in the U.S.
Christopher Leinberger Explains Why Washington, DC, is a Model for Walkable Redevelopment
David Gottfried: Walkable Neighborhoods Are a Greener Choice (Video)