Social Science and Cities

As we enter the New Year, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what themes I want to take on with this blog.  Last year I jumped in with both feet into the gentrification debate, generally coming to two conclusions: 1) gentrification varies by city, and we can’t import the gentrification discussion in one city into another, and 2) that if reinvestment in urban areas is what we’ve wanted for decades, well, dammit, we got it now.  I also took a deep dive into race and cities, too.  I made what I believe to be a pretty compelling case that cities were shunned for electing black mayors during turbulent periods, and that the pattern disruption taking place now in terms of city living could have dire consequences.  Through it all, I maintained my focus on Detroit.

I’ll continue to beat those drums.

One thing I’m thinking about is what the social sciences have to say about what’s happening in our cities today.  My writing and research on Detroit has led me to believe that it had a social collapse that was much deeper than any economic one, and that fact is poorly understood.  Furthermore, urbanists like Richey Piiparinen have demonstrated to me that the underlying psychology of people, and the society those people create within cities, has a profound impact on how they’re perceived and how they grow.  The Rust Belt, of which I am a native son, has experienced loss for so long that it has become part of us, and I’m thinking of exploring how that happens and what can be done about it.
I came across one intriguing article and one intriguing book over the holiday break.  The article, from NPR, explored how our environment strongly impacts our behavior.  This was first noticed through studies of Vietnam War soldiers who had high levels of heroin addiction:

Soon a comprehensive system was set up so that every enlisted man was tested for heroin addiction before he was allowed to return home. And in this population, Robins did find high rates of addiction: Around 20 percent of the soldiers self-identified as addicts.

Those who were addicted were kept in Vietnam until they dried out. When these soldiers finally did return to their lives back in the U.S., Robins tracked them, collecting data at regular intervals. And this is where the story takes a curious turn: According to her research, the number of soldiers who continued their heroin addiction once they returned to the U.S. was shockingly low.

“I believe the number of people who actually relapsed to heroin use in the first year was about 5 percent,” Jaffe said in 2011. In other words, 95 percent of the people who were addicted in Vietnam did not become re-addicted when they returned to the United States.

 This flew in the face of everything everyone knew both about heroin and about drug addiction generally. When addicts were treated in the U.S. and returned to their homes, relapse rates hovered around 90 percent. It didn’t make sense.

The conclusion from the study at the time, and the general sentiment among psychologists today, goes against the grain of what most of us as individuals would like to believe:

 In this way, Neal says, our environments come to unconsciously direct our behavior. Even behaviors that we don’t want, like smoking.

“For a smoker, the view of the entrance to their office building — which is a place that they go to smoke all the time — becomes a powerful mental cue to go and perform that behavior,” Neal says.

Over time those cues become so deeply ingrained that they are very hard to resist. And so we smoke at the entrance to work when we don’t want to. We sit on the couch and eat ice cream when we don’t need to, despite our best intentions, despite our resolutions.

“We don’t feel sort of pushed by the environment,” Wood says. “But, in fact, we’re very integrated with it.”

Of course, no one in the article draws any parallels with this research and cities, but I do.  A change in environment can lead to a change in behavior, and that has implications as our cities and suburbs are undergoing their most substantial changes in 75 years.

Related to this, I came across a book entitled Connected: The Surprising Power Of Our Social Networks.  In it, authors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler say that the way we live, how much we earn, even what we eat and how much we weigh, are heavily influenced by the social networks we establish.  In fact, they suggest that social networks influence us almost in the same way that a virus might:

 As we studied social networks more deeply, we began to think of them as a kind of human superorganism. They grow and evolve. All sorts of things fl ow and move within them. This superorganism has its own structure and a function, and we became obsessed with understanding both. 

 Again, I think this has staggering implications for cities.  Does a “loser’s” mentality after decades of economic loss sabotage efforts to revitalize the Rust Belt?  Does the fear of crime in inner city areas perpetuate it?  What changes in our social networks must be made to create better outcomes?

Look for more on this from me in the future.

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