Social Capital

Fostering connections in your community

by Gary Howe

In Traverse City, we aren’t accustomed to 82 degree weather in mid-March. When it happened it was a major social event. People flocked outdoors. Downtown was buzzing. We populated parkland, the bayfront, trails, sidewalks, and neighborhoods. Acquaintances chatted with each other in the streets and corners. Public spaces were occupied for no reason other than to be out and about. Winter met a dramatic end; we wanted to see people.

Collective happenings like these are when the potential vibrancy of a place is on full display. They nudge us out of our normal routines and into shared space. Seeing the energy and activity makes one wonder: Why don’t we spend more time out and about? Going for strolls for no reason other than to people watch. Seeking chance encounters and random acts of community.

The design of our public spaces plays a major role in facilitating these connections. However, we often struggle to invest in quality designs that make places inviting, comfortable, and safe. Many of our parks sit as empty lawns except for a few old pieces of playground equipment. Our sidewalks are incomplete and unconnected. Many of our city streets are not designed at a human-scale, but as thoroughfares for when we are at our most disconnected; traveling at speeds of 35 and above–all but oblivious to our surroundings. In the normal course of our days, when there isn’t a major event or happening to bring us together, we hole-up. We invest heavily in our lives away from the public realm to make them comfortable, buy don’t always apply that same logic to investing in community.

Community is not static. It is a process that develops as the flow of people and ideas tangle and interweave with a place. When these exchanges are positive, the outcome is increased social capital with payoffs measured within the community by things like safer streets, stronger neighborhoods, more resilient economies, and healthier people. Researchers are now documenting direct links to people’s health and the quality of the neighborhood where they live.Places that invite daily activity, and the community cohesion that occurs when we interact with others, lead to more expansive social networks.

These networks are what we rely on to discover new economic opportunities and to navigate social and political affairs. The authors Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman titled a book after these interactions. “Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter…But Really Do” explores the often overlooked payback from interactions we have with people on a daily basis–if only for a moment. As they write, “we might like to think of ourselves as independent agents, marching through life to our own iPod soundtrack, but our relationships propel us as well.”

The buzzword of late pertaining to this investment is Placemaking. It is often narrowly introduced as an economic tool rather than a social tool—but the two aren’t exclusive. There remains a critical role for public-private partnerships to invest in public spaces for the purpose of encouraging people to serendipitously come together. One crowd-sourced definition of Placemaking recently published by Project for Public Spaces, a leading Placemaking organization, was “taking back the public realm to create memorable, beautiful, vibrant places where people want to gather and participate in the community.”

Placemaking is investing in the public realm to encourage effortless, easygoing, unhurried interactions. 

Places like pocket parks, trailheads, and dog-parks where civic life can occur without being centered on consumption or entertainment are placemaking at its best. Places where happiness is pursued through the joy of being an active and socializing contributor to the community experience.

Luckily, Traverse City and the surrounding region are well positioned to embrace this type of investment. We already have Placemaking projects in the making, both big and small from Suttons Bay to Elk Rapids. As we proceed, let us focus on the underlying principle of connecting people.

* Originally published in the Traverse City Area Business News, April 2012. A month after the warmest week in March we’ve ever experienced.