By Craig Waldron
When our citizens are socially engaged, that creates benefits— something we call “social capital”—that flow to our cities. Social capital leads to trust, reciprocity, information sharing, and cooperating networks in our cities.
Unfortunately, social capital is vanishing in our society as a whole. It’s a problem that city leaders should understand and work to solve.
So, what is the problem? Dr. Robert Putnam has explained it well in his book Bowling Alone, in which he draws on research to show that Americans sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, get to know their neighbors less, and meet less often with friends and family.
People are even bowling alone. Americans are bowling more than ever, but they are not coming together in leagues as they once did. And when people don’t come together, they don’t create social capital.
Why are we losing social capital?
According to Putnam, we don’t yet know what the impact of social media is on social capital. But what we do know is that we are losing social capital because of an increase in people who:
Why is social capital so important? Research at Harvard University tells us that communities with high social capital experience:
In Putnum’s new book, Our Kids, he discusses the huge social opportunity gap that exists in his hometown. As this problem grows, there is now less social capital to address it. We have gone to an “I” and “me” perspective rather than “us,” where we are all in this boat together.
The good news is that it is possible to create social capital in your city if you make it a priority. I have experienced this firsthand. While serving as the city administrator in Oakdale, I had the good fortune to work with the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce, a group that brought a tremendous amount of social capital to the city.
The chamber invited me to become a board member because it wanted to establish a hand-in-glove working relationship with the city. As part of this effort, the group included a city report at its full membership meetings.
The chamber also became a champion and supporter of a number of critical city projects, including:
The Chamber constantly worked to integrate City Hall with the business community for the benefit of the whole city.
Encouraging social capital
What can you do to encourage the development of social capital in your city? Here are some ideas:
Craig Waldron is co-director of the Center for Public Administration and Leadership at the Hamline University School of Business (www.hamline.edu/business). The Hamline School of Business is a member of the LMC Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).
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