One of the most influential ideas to shape public policy at the end of the twentieth century was the concept of “mediating structures.” While the principle is old, an influential 1977 essay, To Empower People, by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, crystalized the concept for policymakers. Berger and Neuhaus proposed that four mediating structures were essential for a healthy and prosperous democratic society: neighborhoods, families, congregations, and voluntary associations. These types of associational institutions create environments in which people care for one another, solve problems, build trust, and cultivate standards on which democratic life depends. These structures, Berger and Neuhaus argued, “have a private face, giving private life a measure of stability, and they have a public face, transferring meaning and value to the megastructures” of the state and, at times, corporations.
The essay inspired research on families, religious institutions, and civic life that revealed how mediating structures positively affect what we value, including health, happiness, safety, and economic growth. We learned that children raised in intact, two-parent households enjoy better outcomes, on average, than those raised in single-parent households. Religious involvement, meantime, increases happiness and industriousness while reducing the odds of committing crime. And higher levels of civic engagement produce better local economic outcomes, higher trust levels, and a greater chance of upward mobility.
But the fourth mediating structure—the neighborhood—remains largely absent in this literature. At the American Enterprise Institute, my colleagues and I constructed a Neighborhood Amenities Index from nationally representative survey data. Our findings: people who live in proximity to neighborhood amenities are happier, more socially connected, and more inclined to help others compared with people who live in low-amenity areas. They’re also more civically engaged and enjoy higher levels of trust at work and in their community. In other words, neighborhoods can cultivate the social goods we typically associate with a healthy civil society.
Numerous studies show that people will pay more to be close to things they value when they’re not at home or work. A study of nearly 100,000 home sales, for example, found a relationship between the ability to walk to neighborhood amenities and higher home values in 13 of 15 U.S. metro areas. In addition, a nationwide analysis in 2018 found a “walkability” premium in property values equal to an additional $28,000 on a $200,000 home. Another study found a similar effect on commercial properties.
But proximity to amenities does more than increase home values. Living close to parks, libraries, community centers, grocery stores, gyms, bars, and restaurants improves our well-being regardless of whether we live in a big city, a suburb, or a small town. High-amenity urban dwellers are nearly four times as likely as low-amenity urban dwellers—37 percent versus 10 percent—to call their community an “excellent” place to live. Among suburban residents, 47 percent of those in high-amenity areas said the same, compared with 21 percent of those in low-amenity places.
High-amenity neighborhoods also appear to encourage the virtues on which happiness and a healthy civil society depend. Residents of amenity-rich urban neighborhoods, for example, are twice as likely as those in lower-amenity areas to say that neighbors engage in reciprocity. The gap widens in the suburbs, with three times as many people in high-amenity neighborhoods saying the same about mutual help than those in low-amenity neighborhoods. Living in higher-amenity neighborhoods is also associated with greater engagement and interest in broader community life. More than half of city and town residents with ample amenities report talking with neighbors about community happenings compared with about a quarter of those living in sparser places.
Trust is also considerably higher in well-rounded communities. Among urban residents, only those living in high-amenity neighborhoods say that most people can be trusted often. In moderate and low-amenity urban areas, large majorities say “one cannot be too careful” when asked about trust levels. And when it comes to trust at work and school, three-quarters of high-amenity residents say that they trust their colleagues compared with about half of those in lower amenity places.
People in high-amenity neighborhoods are more likely to say they’re happy, living the American dream, and confident in their financial future. These characteristics pertain regardless of income or education level. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that people living in such communities are more inclined to say that they expect to live in the same place in five years than those living in lower-amenity neighborhoods. Such findings won’t surprise readers of revered urbanist Jane Jacobs, who wrote long ago about how communities become more desirable when the basics of everyday life are abundant around us, rather than scattered across disconnected landscapes.
Contemporary research affirms time-honored beliefs about the importance of human-scale association. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar, for example, discovered that human beings typically cannot manage relationships successfully with more than 150 people. “Dunbar’s number,” as it’s now known, has proven a useful guide to human organization. We do better when we live and work in environments that reinforce our innate relational limits. Political economist John Hatfield has found that metropolitan areas with more units of local government fare better economically than those that consolidate into larger governmental units. Our survey research suggests that proximity to the amenities and institutions that make up a “real community” are an important element of this enduring respect for human-scale association.
Armed with this knowledge, we could make better public policy by aiming to increase the affordability of neighborhoods—not just housing. Well-rounded, amenity-rich communities are home to disproportionately more affluent people, but where they exist in lower-income places, they produce the same effects. We need more of these neighborhoods for everyone.
Trends suggest that American civic, religious, and familial life has receded in recent decades. We should work to reverse these declines and invest in creating good communities where mutual assistance, trust, social capital, and neighborly involvement can flourish. If Berger and Neuhaus were right, better neighborhoods—along with other mediating structures—will create a happier, healthier, and more reciprocal civil society.