Wei LiuFollow

Date of Award

Fall 12-20-2021

Author's School

Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts

Author Department/Program

Graduate School of Architecture

Degree Name

Doctor of Sustainable Urbanism (DrSU)

Degree Type



Creating a more sustainable urbanism is among the most pressing issues facing the world. Social sustainability is often overlooked as a pillar of sustainable urbanism. A cohesive community, a core component of social sustainability, is an essential social resource in developing a fundamental unit of sustainable urbanism. Social cohesion has the ability to help communities navigate and overcome crisis, a quality of a cohesive neighborhood that has been brought to the forefront during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the urban planning and design literature provides insights into the role of physical form in social cohesion more research is still needed. In the United States, where suburban neighborhoods have become the dominant form of human settlement better understanding how suburban neighborhood form can impact social cohesion among resident is critical to improving sustainable urbanism. As such, this research investigates the socio-physical relationship between neighborhood form and social cohesion in three contiguous suburban neighborhoods in the American Midwest.

The neighborhood form examined in this research is divided into two levels: macro and micro. The macro-level is neighborhood development patterns (traditional neighborhood development, TND; conventional suburban development, CSD; and a mixed development of TND and CSD, defined as Hybrid for this research) while the micro-level is individual design features (physical elements of each development pattern). Using cross-sectional surveys and follow-up interviews, this research assessed this socio-physical relationship across different social distancing conditions. This research finds that TND tended to promote significantly higher levels of social cohesion among residents compared with CSD and Hybrid before and during social distancing. Moreover, this research shows that only a few design features (conceptualized as transitional zones) within each neighborhood played an important role in promoting social cohesion, with some nuances existing between social distancing conditions.

This research identifies the importance of suburban neighborhood form in promoting social cohesion and, as a result, provides support for improving sustainable urbanism in suburban environments. The findings support the efficacy of some specific visions of sustainable urbanism such as New Urbanism, Smart Growth, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Design (LEED-ND) as well as reinforce the Douglas Farr's vision of Sustainable Urbanism and the contemporary movement in urban planning and design to retrofit suburbia to improve sustainable urbanism. This research also resonates with arguments from Alexander's A Pattern Language that highlight how neighborhood development pattern appears to be more important to neighborhood experience than individual design features. Furthermore, this research provides insights into the importance of transitional zones between the public and private realms where people mediate social cohesion. Finally, this research critiques some other visions of sustainable urbanism that are eschewing traditional urban form (e.g., eco-city or landscape urbanism) and/or not able to provide transitional zone (e.g., high-rise or skyscraper city) that are important to supporting neighborhood social cohesion.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Linda Samuels (Chair), Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Rodrigo Reis, and Ian Trivers

Available for download on Friday, December 22, 2023