Three Cheers for Loitering

by Reihan Salam

Mark Oppenheimer’s “Technology Is Not Driving Us Apart After All” is a fascinating look at the work of Keith Hampton, a sociologist at Rutgers University, who has led an ambitious study that compares how people interact in public spaces in major urban areas in the smartphone era and in past decades, drawing on archival footage collected by the renowned midcentury American sociologist William Whyte and the Project for Public Spaces. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety. Among other things, Hampton has found that “people like hanging out in public more than they used to,” and there are far more women on urban streets proportional to men than there had been in the 1970s:

Across the board, Hampton found that the story of public spaces in the last 30 years has not been aloneness, or digital distraction, but gender equity. “I mean, who would’ve thought that, in America, 30 years ago, women were not in public the same way they are now?” Hampton said. “We don’t think about that.”

One wonders how these trends relate to fluctuations in crime levels in U.S. cities. It could be that people are more likely to loiter now than in the past because people feel safer, or it could be that a technology-driven increase in loitering (it’s more fun, or at least less boring, to loiter in public if you have a smartphone) has actually made public spaces safer, and thus more attractive, which has led to further increases in loitering.