Do suburbs contribute or detract from social capital?
Social capital is generally referred to as the levels of trust and reciprocity in society. Trust is enhanced through openness and connectedness. One can think about connectedness on very different levels, such as the physical and psychological levels.
Social networks are good for you and is an important component in economic development. It increases a society’s resilience to shocks. The existing of social networks and community involvement have also been linked to positive health implications.
The questions is whether suburbs help achieve social capital or by nature of their character tend to destroy social capital. Suburbs are physically far away from work and cultural centres and residents just do not have the time to spend in the locality. Suburbs tend to reinforce cultural disconnect as the same kind of people tend to cluster together in the same kind of suburbs. People come and go in suburbs and so-called ‘bounded communities’ are rare. Children play in private gardens and visit selected circles of friends with little opportunity to connect beyond. Think how difficult it sometimes is to just get the football back from the neighbours.
Suburbs are also home to churches, sports clubs, libraries and centres of learning. Although these institutions do provide the much-needed injection of connectedness in suburbs, these communities in suburbs are often very organised and much less spontaneous.
Connectedness is also associated with increased risks of the unknown. It is probably exactly for this reason that suburbs are associated with families and many of the suburbs services, as opposed to the city-centre, are directed at children. One study in Ohio found that a sense of community is strongly correlated with a “perception of walking”. Strolling trips, or walking for pleasure, are positively associated with community. Suburbs are havens for families and any social capital formations strategies need to take this fact as a starting point.
Suburbs are part of our reality. They do not necessary destroy social capital, but have a lot of inherent weaknesses in spontaneously creating a sense of community and thus built social capital. Some of these weaknesses are by design, no doubt about that, but many of the bottlenecks towards the formation of social capital in suburbs are upheld by a lack of safety and security.
If suburbs can start facilitating the spontaneous play of children, and be safe enough to be walkable, we would go a long way towards restoring some of the preconditions of social capital formation.
What does this mean for places such as Rosebank? I'll save that for another day.