Earlier this month The New York Times published a piece on the difficulty of making friends as an adult. It’s an interesting read, but I was most struck by this passage:
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
Though the focus of the article is on age, that passage suggests that friendship is perhaps most influenced by a community’s physical infrastructure. In college, most people live in close proximity to each other — in dorms, small apartments, student sections of their respective cities, etc. — and consequently make closer friends. Unsurprisingly, as people move into less dense communities, they also have a harder time bonding with others.
The point is that living in a dense and diverse neighborhood should give people more “proximity” and “unplanned interactions” with potential friends. In other words, city living means the opportunity for more connections with people while, conversely, living in low density areas — e.g. suburbs — should reduce interactions and therefore friendships.
Interestingly, the opportunity for frequent interactions is also what helps build a strong startup culture in a city, and was more or less one of the things Jane Jacobs emphasized — albeit with different terminology — when she stressed the importance of lively streets.
Of course, there are some limits to this idea. The New York Times, for example, quotes several people in The Big Apple who have difficulty making friends, suggesting that simply living in a big city will not by itself lead to closer bonds.
It’s also worth noting that there are different kinds of density. As Jacobs and many others have pointed out, very tall residential buildings often function as vertical suburbs by creating isolation rather than interaction.
But the lesson here isn’t that cities are a cure-all for loneliness so much as it is a game of numbers: the more people that are clustered into a small area, the greater the probability a person has of meeting and befriending someone new.