Social Capital

Social capital, representing the level of social connectedness in a community, has been consistently shown to be associated with improved mental and physical health.  It has been shown to deter unhealthy activities such as crime, drug use, and alcoholism.  While the pathways through which social capital affects health are not fully understood, providing social support, encouraging healthy behaviors and providing improved access to goods and services probably play a role.

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Social capital can be defined as the degree of social connectedness in a community.  The concept of social capital involves:

  • Community members’ familiarity with and involvement in community affairs,
  • Knowledge and trust of neighbors, and
  • The extent of community members’ interactions with each other (Frank, Kavage & Litman, 2006).

Operationalizing a definition of social capital for purposes of research and public policy is challenging.  There are numerous definitions of social capital (Moore, Haines, Hawe and Shiell, 2006).  Vagueness and complexity make practical applications difficult.  In 2005 Canadian government researchers completed a major research project on social capital and health.  Among the products of their work is a comprehensive reference document on Measurement of Social Capital (Franke, 2005).

Downstream Health Effects

While the direct links between social capital and health outcomes are not fully understood, research has consistently found positive associations between social capital and both physical and mental health (Berkman, Glass et al., 2000; Kawachi & Berkman, 2001; Kawachi, Kennedy & Glass, 1999; Policy Research Institute, 2005; Yen & Kaplan, 1999). Among the many pathways through which social capital affects health, providing social support and promoting healthier behaviors (Berkman, Glass et al., 2000), appear to be especially important.  Social capital has been shown to deter unhealthy activities such as crime, drug use, and alcoholism (Frank, Kavage & Litman, 2006; Sampson, Raudenbusch & Earls, 1997).  The association between social capital and health may also be explained in part by the access to goods and services that tends to be higher among people living in communities with high levels of social capital compared to people living in communities with low levels of social capital (Policy Research Institute, 2005).

The effects of social capital on health are intertwined with economic issues and the distribution of resources (Altschuler, Somkin and Adler, 2004; Islam, Merlo, Kawachi et al., 2006).  Some researchers have criticized the purported links between social capital and health for not adequately taking into account these material (i.e. economic) determinants of health (Navarro, 2002).

Like any form of capital, the community networks and social ties reflected in the concept of capital can be put to uses that are inimical to the well-being of others.  Exclusive social clubs and associations can restrict the access of ethnic minorities and the poor to jobs and educational opportunities.  Criminal gangs can co-opt social networks in ethnic enclaves to advance criminal enterprise and enforce acquiescence, and social networks can be used to demand conformity to social norms in ways that comprise individual rights and liberty (Public Research Institute, 2005).

Policies and Other Determinants

A wide range of public policies may affect the quantity and quality of social capital in a community.  In general, social capital is increased by policies that provide times and places for social interaction and which encourage utilization of such opportunities by a wide array of groups and individuals within a community.  Policies that isolate and compartmentalize groups and individuals, or which reduce opportunities for interaction generally decrease levels of social capital.  Some areas where public policy may be especially effective in building social capital include:

  • Distribution and availability of affordable housing can decrease travel time and decrease the social isolation of low income workers forced to live far from work.  Mixing of housing in different price ranges can encourage social interaction among people of different economic levels and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Residential building codes can encourage more interaction between neighbors.  Design elements that orient structure openings and active living areas towards the street (instead of the backyard), usable front porches, restrictions on walls and fence heights, and provision of common-use areas can all support more social interaction. (ref)
  • Mixed use development, which allows residential, retail and commercial uses in close proximity to one another, sometimes in the same building, encourages people to walk more and spend more time in their neighborhoods and less time in their cars, can provide opportunities for people in the community to interact more on an informal basis.
  • Pedestrian-centered retail and commercial development, this is often combined with mixed use development to create informal opportunities for interaction.  Many of the “great places” that attract visitors and residents are those public markets and shopping districts that provide a pedestrian-centered environment with cafes and other spaces for social interaction (see the Project for Public Spaces website)
  • Travel time to/from work, school, shopping and recreational opportunities takes away from time to spend time engaged in those activities and interacting with others.  Travel time can be lessened through policies to reduce sprawl, promote mixed use development, support transit-oriented development, and improve the effectiveness of transportation systems.
  • Sprawl can weaken social networks and is associated with poorer mental health (Sturm and Cohen, 2004).  Sprawl increases travel time and forces people to travel out of their neighborhood for many everyday tasks, such as shopping, eating, working and going to school.  To be effective, efforts to control sprawl need to be combined with efforts to promote mixed use development and the availability of affordable housing.
  • Parks and other recreational opportunities, including both facilities and programs, allow people to interact with others while playing sports, picnicking, taking classes and just strolling. 
  • Schools are more likely to have high levels of social capital when they are small and located in the neighborhoods in which they serve.  They can also contribute to social capital in the community by opening their doors for community use during after-school hours (e.g. for recreational uses, meetings and adult education courses).
  • Mass transit can improved service coverage, ease-of-use, that provides an attractive, time-efficient alternative to automobile use, for all community members, especially those with limited mobility options (e.g. the young and the elderly) (STPP, 2003; Centre for Sustainable Transportation, 2004; Environmental and Energy Study Institute, 2006).  Besides the “hard” measures of transit service, “soft” measures such as comfort and perceived security in the transit system are essential for increasing use, providing stress-free travel and creating opportunities for positive social interaction (Evan, Wener and Phillips, 2002; Evans and Wener, 2003; Wener and Evans, 2007).
  • Walkable communities, not parks or fitness facilities, are where most people get most of their daily physical activity.  While walking, people have a chance to interact with neighbors, learn about their neighborhoods and become involved in community affairs.  Elements conducive to walkability include: wide, well-maintained sidewalks, signalized street crossings, slower traffic and narrower streets at crossings, street trees, destinations (shops, restaurants, etc.), and security.  For more information see Active Living by Design and Project for Public Spaces.
  • Public safety affects and is affected by social capital.
  • Parental leave and access to day care allow parents to participate in neighborhood and community affairs.
  • Public libraries provide a valuable community resource for community members to meet formally and informally (Cart, 2002).