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‘Social capital’ builds bonds between people in an alienating city

What if we knew for certain how to get better schools, lower crime, friendlier neighborhoods and higher-paying jobs for all Atlantans? What if, on top of that, we knew how to help local residents live happier and longer lives?

Too good to be true? Not really. All it takes is capital.

Social capital, that is.

In his recent book, Bowling Alone, Harvard professor Robert Putnam, defines social capital as “community connectedness.” We can see social capital in communities through the trust, diversity of friendships, political participation, civic leadership and involvement that residents have. We can see connectedness in the way people socialize, volunteer their time, give their money to nonprofits and engage in worship.

Community connectedness enables diverse groups of individuals brought together by common desires to achieve common goals. Trust and mutual respect speed things up considerably and lead to decisions that can make everyone happy.

By now, most Atlantans have gotten comfortable with the term “smart growth.” Everyone has a slightly different definition. But, for the most part, we agree that smart growth is development characterized by pedestrian accessibility, transportation alternatives, green space, public amenities and a mix of residential and commercial uses. The payoffs for smart growth are both environmental and economic. It promises a better quality of life in our communities.

We are just beginning to realize, however, that smart growth won’t work without social capital: If smart growth is the hardware for healthy, sustainable communities, then social capital is the software.

In Atlanta’s successful neighborhoods, everybody’s involved: residents, houses of worship, small businesses, major employers, schools, police officers and city council people. Together, they address issues that are important to them.

Besides greasing the wheels for implementing smart-growth strategies, social capital helps communities deal with change, solve problems and respond to crises. Think about all of the facets of metro Atlanta where a little social capital would come in handy right about now — education, air and water quality, transportation, welfare reform.

Social capital is of great interest to the Regional Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit organization that engages residents in regional problem solving. This summer, the foundation is hosting four public forums on social capital, where residents will have a chance to meet others from their communities and develop strategies for boosting social capital at these events. A similar forum this spring drew 80 participants representing civic organizations, corporations, nonprofits and local government. They represented a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds and ranged from college students to retirees.

Many of those in attendance were especially interested in a recent study developed by Putnam and his colleagues and underwritten by the Community Foundation. It indicates that we in the Atlanta region have a lot of work to do in the social capital department. A whopping 68 percent of us don’t know who our U.S. senators are. (Max Cleland and Zell Miller, for the record.) Then, there’s the matter of trusting our local governments — less than a third of us do.

There are plenty of examples where social capital has pulled us through. Were it not for social capital in Inman Park, Atlanta would have another major highway instead of Freedom Park. To our credit, according to the Community Foundation survey, we are 10 percent more likely to know our neighbors than are our counterparts in similar communities. Atlantans are also much more likely to have a friend of a different race than are our peers in other communities.

Putnam’s evidence suggests that social capital has declined sharply across the nation over the past 30 years. Indeed, increased work-related demands, changes in technology and more time spent in the car are only a few of the reasons we’re not building social capital like we used to. The good news is that we’re inventing new ways to make it happen more often.

Today, we have social-capital organizations like Hands On Atlanta, where our involvement is on a project-by-project basis as our schedules permit. This can mean rounding up a group of friends to participate in helping build a play ground, or it can mean committing two hours every week to a tutoring program. Community volunteers at my organization, the Atlanta Community Food Bank, can work with friends, family or fellow employees on everything from sorting food, teaching Hunger 101, to working in a community garden. At the neighborhood level, folks can work together on everything from soccer leagues to creating new hiking and bicycle paths. The point is connecting with folks, building trust through common experience, and encouraging collaboration has much greater benefits than just the project you are working on.

Bill Bolling is executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank and chairman of the Regional Leadership Foundation.


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