Robert Putnam

Harvard Professor Robert Putnam is the author of "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" and "Better Together: Restoring the American Culture."

prawl is pretty deadly for a community. It's partly because in a sprawling area we just have to spend more time in metal boxes taking us from one area to another so we use up a lot more time -- there's a rough rule of thumb here that 10 more minutes of commuting time cuts all forms of social interaction by 10%, so 10 minutes more time spent commuting means 10% less time at dinner parties or church-going, or time spent with your family, and 20 minutes more equals 20% less of all social connection.

So part of the problem with sprawl means we commute more, but part of it is not just that, but that our lives are lived in large triangles -- one point being where we sleep, one point being where we work, one point being where we shop. When we used to live in villages the distance between those three corners used to be measured in feet or hundreds of yards, but now in Los Angeles or any really large sprawling area, the distance between those points for anyone might be 30 or 40 or 50 miles.

In that kind of world it's not clear where home is, it's not clear where you should be basing your community, if you're living one place and working one place, so in both of those ways sprawl is bad for community.

Basically. America's going to hell in a handbasket because we've become disconnected from one another over the last 30 or 40 years. We don't go to meetings as much, we don't spend as much time with our families, we don't know our neighbors as well, we don't trust other people as well.

We don't have to recreate the 50s, but we need to create new forms of connecting. When we move from villages to cities we don't try to keep connecting through barn gatherings and quiltings, we invent new ways, like the Rotary Club or the Red Cross. We need to do the same thing now in contemporary America.

s we went around the country (after the publication of Bowling Alone), we found that there were some people who were actually successfully turning the tide in little niches of American life, so Better Together is meant to be an upbeat book that says it's still true that we have this problem, but here are some people who are showing how to successfully grapple with it.

What I've tried to argue in my work is that it matters to the health of our communities, our own bodies, whether we're connected or not. Schools measurably don't work as well in communities where people aren't involved with the schools, where parents don't get involved in their kid's education, test scores are lower. The crime rate in a neighborhood is powerfully affected by how many people know the names of their neighbors.

It's not just nostalgia, there are significant effects on the economy; when the trust declines the economy doesn't work as efficiently, and there are physical effects too. Social isolation, not knowing your neighbors, is as big a risk factor for premature death as smoking. Your risk of dying in the next month is cut in half by belonging to one group, so there are measurable effects on our survival, mental health, the health of our communities."

bout a decade ago I did a study of a very bizarre topic -- government in Italy -- and it turned out that the best predictor was the number of choral societies or football clubs. If you tell me how many choral societies there are I can tell you how long it'll take you to get reimbursed for your health bills.

I came back from that study, which took 25 years in Italy, and was worried about what was happening in America and wondered if there was any connection between what I'd been studying, and that's what led me to look at trends in social connection in the U.S., and led me to discover this sharp decline,

I guess there's another possible answer on how I came to study this, and it was never conscious, but it happened that I grew up in a small town in the Midwest in the 1950s, and it was a place with a lot of intolerance, not a place you'd want to spend your life. I've never returned there, but it did make me really conscious of the values of people being connected with their neighbors. I guess in my work I'm trying to edit the 50s, capture the good parts and edit out the bad parts, so I would like to change America, not change but contribute to a process of social and political renewal.

I've written lots and lots of books in my life, most of them have had a readership of three people, and suddenly I publish this one little article and I got invited to Camp David and my wife and I got into People Magazine, so I wondered why was that, and I think it was very simply that I had stumbled very dumbly on something that everyone knew was true, that we weren't as closely connected.

They knew their dad had belonged to the Moose club, or that their mom had belonged to Hadassa, and they weren't and they knew why, but they felt unhappy about it, and they felt that it was their problem. Then this Harvard professor comes along and says no, it's happening to all of us, all of us are disconnected.

For example, we know that in our schools we have an effect on the civic aptitude, we know that smaller schools are better, we know that extracurriculars are better, we know that some sort of civic education is better. We know that some things could be better in the work policy -- give more time to people to spend with their families and their community.

There are things that could be done in the workplace, things in term of the structure of political power, the decentralization of political authority to neighborhood and communities actually allows people to feel in power to be connected to things they care about in their own neighborhoods."

eah, I think that America is a big complex society and therefore there are conflicting trends at the moment. I think that it's still true that the underlying trends are not favorable. I think that some of the big structural elements of society, that we spend most of our time alone in front of a screen, more of us are living work lives that prevent us from relaxing with community and such, some structural changes are increasing the problem.

But I also think that people are not just corks bobbing on these big tidal waves, I think people can change society, we've done it before, so yes I think there are places in society where real change is going on. Community is not something that just happens, it's something that we do, and yet we can't do it utterly alone.

There are things we can do in our own lives, we can slow down a little bit and recognize that we would be happier if we could somehow trade off a few nights with close friends. If it meant putting off getting the BMW for a couple of years, it's actually the better tradeoff, and actually there is a lot of good scientific evidence that we are happier and we live longer, we do get more benefit, that means those are choices we can make.

I can choose if I'm going to sit up in my room and write another article, or have dinner with friends. Now I don't claim that I always make the right decision, but I think that the more we understand about it the more we can do about it, taking time to say hi to your neighbors, taking time in the school with your kids, taking time to become involved. There are also things that we need to do collectively for public policy.