Gated communities such as this one in Canada are cutting American homeowners off from their larger communities, a new report says.
Gated communities such as this one in Canada are cutting American homeowners off from their larger communities, a new report says.

The fact that many Americans live in gated and segregated neighborhoods that require long commutes is having a profound impact on the nation’s social health, according to a new report.

“Less in Common” from Portland. Ore.-based think tank City Observatory casts a shadow on the way U.S. builders and developers approach residential development, looking at how residents live, how they spend their time, and how well they relate to one another. It chronicles the decline of “social capital” in the United States over the past several decades including a rise in the number of gated communities, more time spent alone in the car, and an education system increasingly polarized by income. The report defines social capital as the connections and norms of reciprocity that smooth interpersonal actions and support community.

“There is compelling evidence that the connective tissue that binds us together in cities is coming apart,” says Joe Cortright, economist and founding director of City Observatory. “As we’ve spent more time in isolation and less time socializing with our neighbors, participation in the civic commons has suffered. Rebuilding social capital in America will require innovative approaches to spur community engagement.”

Over the past 40 years, as Americans’ willingness to trust others has declined they’ve become less likely to spend time socializing with neighbors (see graphic above) and this decline in social capital is at the crux of many of the problems confronting cities large and small. The findings underscore the urgent need to reinvigorate civic assets such as parks, libraries, community centers, and public schools, which foster connections and a sense of belonging, according to Carol Coletta, vice president of the Knight Foundation, which supports City Observatory.

“As urban life continues to change, the civic commons has a big role to play in creating places that encourage people to cross paths, encounter new ideas, and help shape their communities,” says Coletta. “But we have to change the way we think about our public places. By reimagining them as a connected set of civic assets we can help create cities that people want to live in—those that attract talented workers, expand opportunities for people of all backgrounds and ensure long-term success.”