Communities Aren’t Just Places, They’re Social Networks

From Richard Florida on Atlantic Cities – a book revue and author interview that is reminds us  of Christopher Alexander’ seminal paper “A city is not a tree” – “its’ a semi-lattice”  that makes the idea that proximity creates communities obviously misinformed – even in places that have dense communities – these are invariable distributed and connected in many different ways – not only by physical location – all sorts of network associations are in play and being enacted – where these associations are not being reenacted or performed – the networks decay and communities disintegrate or never form, as repeatedly elaborated by Bruno Latour,  in “Reassembling the Social” and other of his papers, these Actor-Networks consist of both human and non-human actors and their relationships are coterminous in more than one type of network and more than one type of space.

Cities are obviously more than just the sum of their physical assets — roads and bridges, offices, factories, shopping centers, and homes — working more like living organisms than jumbles of concrete. Their inner workings even transcend their ability to cluster and concentrate people and economic activity. As sociologist Zachary Neal of Michigan State University argues in his new book, The Connected City, cities are made up of human social networks. Neal took time to discuss his book and research with Atlantic Cities, explaining how cities work as living organisms and why what happens in Las Vegas cannot stay in Las Vegas.

RF: In the book, you write that “communities are networks, not places.” Tell us about why and how networks matter to cities?

ZN: We often think of communities in place–based terms, like Jane Jacobs’ beloved Greenwich Village. But, whether or not a place like Greenwich Village is really a community has more to do with the residents’ relationships with one another — their social networks – than with where they happen to live or work. The danger of thinking about communities as places is that it can lead us to find communities where they don’t exist.  A neighborhood where the residents never interact is merely a place, but hardly a community. This can lead us to overlook communities that are not rooted in particular places, like a book club with a constantly changing venue.

Communities aren’t disappearing, but to find them we need to stop looking in places, and start looking in social networks.

What are the key factors that shape the networks of a connected city?

Despite claims of the death of distance, especially in a networked society, the most critical factor is still distance. But, when it comes to the connected city, at least three different kinds of distance — network, spatial, and social — are important.  Network distance refers to the number of links between two people: I am close to my friends, a bit further away from friends–of–friends, and so on.

Understanding how the connected city is organized is really a matter of understanding network distance: Why are some people close to one another in a network, while others are further apart?

Spatial distance plays an important role because when two people live or work near one another, they are more likely to have chance encounters and interact. Social distance matters because when two people share political attitudes, or educational backgrounds, or even musical tastes, they are more likely to interact. This nearly universal tendency is known in the social network world as homophily. Thus, when two people are separated by short spatial distances (they live near each other) and/or short social distances (they like the same things), they are likely to be separated by short network distances (they interact with each other or have mutual friends).

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