by Gary Esolen –
In his book Bowling Alone, Bob Putnam coined the term social capital. Like its cousins financial capital and human capital, it refers to a source of value—in this case the value (economic and otherwise) of good will and human interaction. Think of social capital as the lubricant that reduces friction in the workings of society.
One powerful generator of social capital is the shared love of a place. Perhaps you have had the experience, when traveling, of running into someone who has lived in or spent significant time in a place you consider home. As you talked about a favorite restaurant or neighborhood, or a grand old building, the pace of your conversation probably quickened, the tone got a bit warmer, and a connection was established between you. If it happened that you had important work to do with that other person, chances are it just got easier and more inviting. That’s social capital doing its job.
People who share the love of a place work together more easily. They will commit their time and energy and even sometimes money to projects that make the place better. When hundreds of people show up on a Saturday to get a local park into shape, sweeping and shoveling and bagging and trimming and laying paving stones, you know that there is a large reserve of social capital being drawn on. When neighbors meet to create a community garden, or to plant trees along their street, they are there partly because of social capital, and a shared love of place.
From time to time, in many places, people become focused on shared problems: crime, or a poor education system, or traffic snarls. Elected officials may respond by trying to create a more positive spin with a civic pride campaign, describing pride-worthy aspects of the community, and urging citizens to display bumper stickers, yard signs, or wear buttons declaring their affection for those things. That is an appeal to social capital, though often only partly effective because lists of good things may not get at what people love about a place.
Sometimes love of place slips out of sight, becoming in effect part of people’s private lives rather than of their shared public lives. As we become a more mobile society, and when more of our lives are governed in commercial transactions, this becomes even more likely. Social capital, in those situations, becomes less accessible, but it is still there. It is as if everyone’s money were frozen in bank accounts they cannot readily access. But when some beloved thing is threatened, people leap to its defense, and social capital starts flowing again.
Often such moments crystallize around proposed developments. A housing development is announced that will eat up the last working farm at the edge of town, or will occupy land that has come over time to be a public space, say a fishing and swimming stretch of a river or stream. People love going there for picnics or just for a walk in a beautiful place. Often a surprisingly powerful movement can form quickly to protect this asset, to make it a park rather than a development. The City of Scottsdale, Arizona, were we have worked, put together astonishing resources to save the last piece of the Sonoran Desert on its mountainsides, and keep it forever undeveloped. In Austin, Texas, a developer’s proposal to build along Barton Creek galvanized citizens in opposition. In Istanbul, Turkey, protests against a proposal to develop and change the character of parks threatened the stability of the national government.
Social capital is a big deal, and shared love of place fuels social capital. We have developed tools to use this powerful force to consciously make places better and to help people create better lives.