I have a new paper published with my former PhD student Lauren Sessions Goulet and former undergraduate research assistant Garrett Albanesius. This work was recently featured by NYT Magazine in an article by Mark Oppenheimer.
Despite concerns that Americans are increasingly likely to live alone, that loneliness has increased, and that the mobile phone – by distracting us from those around us – has led to the loss of conversation, today public spaces are a more likely source for interacting than they were three decades ago. Observations of nearly 150,000 people captured on film in four public places in 1979-80, and from video taken of the same places 30 years later, show that we are less alone and more together in public. Mobile phones, while seemingly always present, are used in public by a small number of people, who tend to linger in place, but rarely use their phones in groups. Other social changes have had a more meaningful impact on the use of public spaces. Women, whose participation in the workforce has increased by 44 percent since the early 1980s, have increased their use of public space. Men and women are spending more time in public together. These observations counter the suggestion that new technologies are responsible for a large scale shift in how people use public spaces, and that Americans are increasingly socially isolated.
In a comparison of pedestrians filmed in four public spaces located in Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia at two time periods, 30 years apart, we found that the proportion of people in groups had increased relative to people who were alone. The early films, created by the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning and educational organization founded to expand on the work of William Whyte, when compared to recent videos, show a decline of 24 percent in the presence of people who were alone at the Met Steps in NYC, a 24 percent decline in singletons within Boston’s Downtown Crossing, and an 8 percent decline in people alone on the sidewalks outside of Bryant Park in NYC…