Oct 10, 2008

Enough about the decline in financial capital- let's talk about "Social Capital"

In partnership with Seattle City Club, Communities Count and Sustainable Seattle have been hosting community dialogues to raise awareness of the importance of social capital, and to identify opportunities for us to increase our social capital, as well as identify barriers to doing so- and ways to address those barriers.

So what is social capital? In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block says this. "A community's well-being simply has to do with the quality of the relationships, the cohesion that exists among its citizens...Social capital is about acting on and valuing our interdependence and sense of belonging. It is the extent to which we extend hospitality and affection to one another." Block goes on to say that to improve any of our community measures of community health- education, economy, health, safety, the environment- we need to INVEST IN SOCIAL CAPITAL.

This is a critical time to be discussing this. As uncertainty builds around the economy and financial markets, our environmental challenges grow greater- step one to addressing those is building social capital. The time also provides us an opportunity to re-assess what is important in life- in fact, researcher Robert Putnam suggest that during another dire economic time, the Great Depression, many Americans were the happiest they remember being- and remember time spent with family, friends and neighbors, working together and supporting one another.

So how is King county doing? Measures such as our Involvement in Community Organizations, and Level of Neighborhood Social Cohesion, and Level of Social Support- suggest there are some assets to build on, and some challenges to address. (From Communities Count- new report coming in December).
Nationally, Robert Putnam (famous for his book "Bowling Alone" and his work through the Saguaro Seminar) suggest that our social connectedness is on the decline, as is our level of civic engagement. DO YOU THINK THIS IS TRUE?

This has been a hot topic at the community dialogues. King County residents have a lot of thoughts on this. Some blame "The Seattle Freeze," Ipods and cell phones, negative media, and bickering politicians for what some see as low levels of social capital. Others think our car-dominated culture, unwalkable neighborhoods (in short, the Built Environment) and the norm of "work, work, work" play big roles. Another major topic of concern is what one man terms our "nickle and diming" form of government and "messed-up tax policy" which he says gives power to lobbyists and makes individual action an exhausting process. According to these challenges, building social capital will take changes to the Built Environment, including enhancing the walkability of our neighborhoods, reform tax policy, and a transformation of some of our modern cultural tendencies.

Pioneer SquarePioneer Square is a walkable neighborhood- Do you think it has higher levels of social capital? (right)

But there are positives. Everyone seems to love our King County library system and the roles they play in building community. Lots of people are involved in neighborhoods groups, from District Councils to SCALLOPS groups to others. One woman living in downtown says she knows everyone in her condo- and credits the common area at ground floor for this. Another couple, who live on the east side, took the effort to put gift baskets on their neighbor's porches- and now have friends for life. And overwhelmingly- everyone seems to think this upcoming election has people more excited to engage than we have seen in awhile.

How can WE ALL build social capital? Is it important, especially at this time? What do you think?

-submitted by Megan Horst, Action Agenda Coordinator, Communities Count.

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