Zachary Neal is an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, with a joint appointment in the Psychology Department (Ecological–Community Program) and the Global Urban Studies Program. His research areas include social networks, urban networks, globalization and world cities, and public schools as organizations and social institutions.
Joyce Brown: Being a professor of sociology and global urban studies isn’t an obvious career choice: what led you down this path?
Zachary Neal: My path has been a fairly indirect one. My undergraduate degree was in Philosophy; I was particularly interested in ethical and moral issues, and had planned to enter law school. After working for a couple years with the Illinois Supreme Court, I decided instead to pursue a PhD in Sociology, focusing on urban and community development. I now find myself a professor of Psychology, within a subfield known as Community Psychology. Through these various transitions, my interest in understanding and improving the well-being of communities hasn’t changed, but I have found myself gravitating away from the purely theoretical, and toward the more applied areas of social science.
Joyce: What is urban network research?
Zachary: Urban network research is a broad umbrella term I (and others) use to describe research on urban topics and phenomena that draws on theories of networks and methods of network analysis. It is an approach that's been around a long time, but has recently been gaining interest. The types of topics, theories, and methods that come into play can vary quite widely. In some cases, researchers focus on macroscopic, global-scale issues like the recent global financial crisis and its impact on cities’ economies. Here, one might look at how banks and businesses in one city are linked to banks and businesses in other cities, and how these linkages can create ripple effects throughout the global economy. In other cases, researchers focus on microscopic, local-scale issues like the formation of social networks in neighborhoods. Here, one might look at how individual characteristics like race or neighborhood characteristics like the presence of public parks affect how residents form relationships with each other. My own work has touched on several different levels of analysis, and has drawn on a wide variety of theories and methods.
Joyce: Your book, The Connected City, introduced me to thinking about networks and how they shape modern cities. What are some key points that someone in your general audience, like me, should understand about cities and networks?
Zachary: There are two big picture lessons in there. First, networks are everywhere. Computer networks and online social networks are the obvious ones that come to mind, but nearly everything we do and experience is shaped by networks. What we believe is shaped by who we know (our social networks). What we see is shaped by where the roads and sidewalks go (transportation networks). Whether we will get the flu this season is shaped by both of these at the same time. Networks are inescapable.
Second, everything is not connected to everything else. As much as we might like to believe that in the digital age everything is connected, it’s not. Some things are better connected, or differently connected, than others, and these patterns make a big difference. In the case of social networks, some people have the kinds of connections that make them influential in their communities, while others have the kinds of connections that leave them in danger of exploitation. In the case of roads, some places are more accessible than others, which has implications for land value and crime. When we think about when and how networks matter, we need to be thinking not merely about the fact that networks exist, but about how those networks are organized.
Joyce: In a statement about one of your recent studies, you concluded that diverse and socially cohesive communities aren’t possible: how did you come to that rather gloomy conclusion?
Zachary: The conclusion that residential diversity and social cohesion in neighborhoods is a preliminary one, based on a series of simulated neighborhoods and neighborhood social networks. We used a technique called agent-based modeling to simulate the behavior of people living in a neighborhood and forming social networks. We found that if we made the simulated neighborhoods highly segregated, the social networks that formed were more cohesive, but if we made the simulated neighborhoods more diverse and integrated, the social networks that formed were more fragmented. But, it’s not necessarily a gloomy conclusion.
When Americans think about segregation, they usually think about forced racial segregation. This form of segregation is extremely problematic, and unfortunately continues to exist. Our finding certainly should not be taken to mean that we are advocating racial segregation as a community-building strategy. However, there are other kinds of segregation too. Ethnic enclaves are a type of segregation, and perhaps a beneficial one because they allow recent immigrants to gain a foothold in a new place and build supportive networks with other members of their community. Artist communities are another type of segregation, and again perhaps a beneficial one because they allow creative professionals to inspire one another as they live and work in close proximity. In the broadest terms, our finding suggests that building strong, cohesive communities requires residents to have and find a common ground. In a followup study, we used the same simulation approach to explore whether building parks and other public spaces in a community could create this kind of common ground. Under certain circumstances, it could: communities with a common public space could be simultaneously diverse and cohesive.
It’s also worth noting that cohesive communities are not necessarily all they’re cracked up to be. Communities that are too cohesive can become disconnected from other communities and from the rest of the city. If a community’s members only interact with each other, this can lead to intolerance of outsiders, to closed mindedness, and to an inability to access resources and ideas that come from outside the community. Social cohesion is certainly an important ingredient for a strong community, but “bridging” social ties to others outside the community also have an important role to play. In fact, in the original paper, we recommend that if forced to choose it may make sense to err on the side of more diverse and less cohesive communities for many of these reasons.
Joyce: How does the layout of the city we live in shape our social life?
Zachary: The layout of the city is important, but maybe even more important is the layout of the routes that connect different parts of the city. Many cities in the United States that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have a grid street plan, which is easy to navigate and makes most locations fairly accessible from anywhere. If the intersections are closely spaced, so that a city block is comfortably walkable like in Manhattan, people will walk, and in the course of walking, will run into each other potentially forming social ties. In contrast, if the interactions are spaced far apart, like in Phoenix where major intersections occur only once every mile or so, walking is unlikely and the spontaneous formation of social ties is hampered.
In some older US cities, and in many cities throughout Europe, the street plans are much less uniform. Instead, they are a collection of meandering roads and alleys that formed over a long period of time, perhaps routed around a long-since forgotten farm or since-filled-in stream. These street plans don’t lend themselves to easy navigation or driving, but they do lend themselves to slow walking and to getting lost. While slow walking and getting lost aren’t ideal for getting to a destination, they are ideal for forming tiny communities with unique character in a larger city.
These are just two examples of how a city’s street plan can affect how and when people interact with one another. Realtors have long known that it’s all about location, location, location. But, when it comes to thinking about how the layout of the city shapes our social life, it’s really about location in the network. A person living at the end of a hard-to-reach cul-de-sac will have the opportunity to develop a very different social network than a person living at the confluence of a city’s major thoroughfares in downtown.
Joyce: What does the networked urban city of the future look like?
Zachary: Interestingly, the networked city of today looks a lot like the networked city of the ancient world. Certainly, people have wider social circles and cities have larger transportation networks, but many of the basic patterns have remained quite similar. Even more shockingly, the types of patterns we see in urban networks also appear in other, seemingly unrelated, networks like the nervous system of a worm and the hyperlinks of the world wide web. It is hard to speculate on what cities of the future will look like, but at least as far as networks are concerned, many are focused on exploring whether there are certain fundamental rules that govern how all networks grow and evolve over time. The jury is still very much out on this, but if such rules exist, understanding what they are and when they matter may give us some clues about the future of cities (and worms).
Joyce: What other studies or projects are on your horizon?
Zachary: I am continuing my work on understanding how neighborhood social networks form. In particular, I am interested in how key features of the environment like public spaces, parks, and sidewalks impact this process, and can be manipulated to build neighborhoods with the potential to support strong communities. Alongside this work, I am collaborating on the Michigan School Program Information (MiSPI) project, which aims to understand how public school administrators use their social and professional networks to learn about new school programs. The goal of this study is to make it easier for administrators to find high-quality instructional, health, and social skills programs, and thus to make sure our children are getting the best programming available.