Political scientist examines democracy in suburbia

In the last half century, many Americans have moved from large cities and small towns to a place in between -- most U.S. residents now live in the suburbs. Sociologists have studied the consequences of this change in terms of issues such as racial segregation. But what about the effects on our basic form of government?

In "Democracy in Suburbia" ( Princeton University Press , 2001), Eric Oliver, assistant professor of politics and public affairs , applies statistical analysis to extensive survey and census data to examine the health of American civic society. Starting with the migration of people from the cities to the suburbs in the 1950s to the urban sprawl of today, Oliver describes how suburbanization impacts civic engagement and the extent to which citizens do or do not connect with their community or local government.

What happens to democracy in suburbia is crucial to understanding the possible future of civic and political life in the United States, he claims. Analyzing what is beneficial or harmful about suburbia can help illuminate what features of suburban life are worth holding on to, and what should be changed. Oliver recently talked with a writer from the Office of Communications about some of the key issues in his book.

Many claims are made about suburbs, perhaps the most common being that they cause residents to become isolated from each other and less involved in community life. What place does your book have in this debate, or, in other words, what compelled you to write it?

Following movies like "The Ice Storm" or "American Beauty," many people harbor negative views or stereotypes about suburbs being alienating or isolating places, but no one has ever systematically examined whether or how suburbanites actually differ from people in other places. I wanted to find out whether the myths of suburban alienation were really true. Using a combination of survey and census data, I examine whether and how people's social environments shape their civic activities.

What do you define as civic participation in a suburb?

I look at a wide variety of behaviors ranging from voting in local elections to belonging to voluntary organizations to working informally with neighbors.

Why is civic capacity important to democracy?

Civic capacity is the extent to which citizens in a place are involved in both civic and political activities. Localities rely on their civic capacity to identify and solve social problems. We can think of it as akin to the unpaid sector of an economy. Just as unpaid activities such as housekeeping and childrearing are vital for the well-being of an economy, so are civic activities vital for the success of a democratically run society.

What general features of a suburb (noting that there are many types of suburb), can help civic participation grow?

I argue that rather than see suburbs and cities as distinct categories of places, it makes more sense to understand all places within a metropolitan area as similar units of analysis that can be differentiated by six characteristics: population size, economic composition, racial composition, age, land use, and form of government. I find that communities with a smaller size and greater economic and racial diversity have the highest levels of civic participation.

And what features can hurt civic participation?

Large size is a major deterrent to participation. People in bigger cities are generally less politically interested and less involved. High degrees of economic segregation are also harmful. I find that residents of the most affluent places are also less involved. Racial segregation is detrimental to certain civic acts too -- residents of predominantly white places tend to be less active in instrumental types of civic behavior.

You describe how large cities can be alienating and engender a "bystander" outlook in which residents relinquish responsibility for social problems by thinking that others will take care of them. So if many cities are too large and yet many suburbs are too homogeneous, what is the ideal?

The ideal place is a smaller community (probably between 10,000 and 20,000 in size) that has a representative level of economic and racial diversity (i.e., the social composition of the community mimics that of the greater metropolitan area).

You point to Portland, Ore., as a city with one of the nation's highest levels of civic involvement, while the young metropolitan areas of the Sun Belt reflect the lowest levels. How do you explain this?

There are a number of historical and institutional factors that explain these differences, though one of the biggest is probably air conditioning. Newer cities in the Sun Belt are built around air conditioning. Consequently, fewer homes have front porches, recreational life tends to be more privatized, and many Sun Belt residents are isolated and indoors during the summer months when socializing is peaking in other parts of the country.

How do sample communities in central New Jersey fare in terms of civic activity?

From my data, I would predict that the communities with the richest civic lives in New Jersey are the smaller and more diverse ones. Montclair is a great example of a community that retains its diversity within a smaller size and seems to have a very rich local civic life. Communities with lower civic involvement will be the larger ones (Newark or Patterson) or the very homogeneous ones (Short Hills or Camden).

What needs to happen to revitalize civic life in this country's living environments?

I think we need to fundamentally rethink how we organize government at the local level. Currently, many of our local governments serve as instruments of economic and racial exclusion rather than arenas of democracy. Local governments are creatures of our state governments and should not function in this way.

My proposal, which may be politically untenable, is to create a two-tiered system of local government. One level, the metropolitan one, would be responsible for transportation, growth management and general economic development. Beneath that would be smaller local governments of no larger than 50,000 in size that would be responsible for local services such as police, fire and schools. These localities should be configured to maximize the representative diversity of their constituents and their boundaries could be periodically altered to sustain that diversity.

The tragic events of Sept. 11 seem to have sparked new energy in civic activity in many communities across the United States. Might this stronger sense of community now impact civic involvement over the long term, or do you suspect it is a passing state?

It is difficult to know what the long-term impact of Sept. 11 will be, but, most likely, the flurry of civic-related activities following the terrorist attacks are more of a blip than a reversal of a long-term trend in civic disengagement. While it is very heartening to see Americans expressing public solidarity, I think other, more institutional changes are required to bring about long-term change.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601