Thursday, March 25, 2010

Building a Stronger Social Connection in the City

One area in which small towns out do bigger centres is with the social capital in the community. The smaller the town, the more of the people you know and the more likely you are to be able to ask them for favours or will do other people favours. A small enough town, under 4000 people, means that you get to know all manner of people you would not normally hang around with.

I lived in Lillooet for most of decade. I was on a first name basis with people from across the political spectrum, from all ages, and from all cultures. Even when people did not like each other, they came together to make the town a better place.

Victoria was a city of only a bit more than 200,000 when I first started University in 1983. At that time there were a lot more service clubs, more youth sports, more Scouts and Guides and in general just a lot more groups of people willing to give their time to make their community a better place. For many people their social involvement was their primary out of work interaction with other people.

Lillooet was small enough that I knew a lot more people through casual interaction than I do here in Victoria. The people serving me at the grocery store I got to know, post office staff, the teachers outside of the school and almost everyone else. I got to know them because the town was small enough that I would see them in multiple settings.

We have 1/3 more people than 1983 in the city, but we have a lot fewer groups in the community. People claim to be busy, but I can not see how they are any busier now than a generation ago. I run my own business and I find the time to volunteer for Scouts. My friend Malcolm is a vet that works 75 hours a week and he finds time for Scouts as well. Time is not the issue, I think it is alienation from the larger whole of the community.

More and more people are only really interacting with a small set of people that they generally agree with. In a real life setting most of the public has a connection to only around 75 people. People are retreating into groups of people that are like minded and not choosing to venture out of that safety zone. Going to the stores you may see the same cashier, but you are unlikely to run into her at your school or walking the dog on your street. You do not get other chances to get to know them.

All manner of community groups and churches are falling in membership. People are not joining and the membership is getting older. There are some churches that are doing well, but they seem to be the professionalized ones with large staff and religion as a consumer item and not a community based thing.

This interaction of people that is abundant in small towns and rare in cities is the social capital of the place. It is bad for the city to lose the social capital it has. Loss of it means people do not come out to help each other, they do not 'agree to disagree', they do not vote, they do not contribute to the society.

Look at all the money raised in Victoria for Haiti, but where is the same community effort to raise money for a family when their house burns down?

I am the first to admit I do not know what can to be done to build more social capital in this city, but it seems to me there needs to something done to change this. Here are some suggestions:

  • Allow streets to be closed for street celebrations, also allow liquor to be at these events
  • Create some sort of meet your neighbour day
  • Make civic space free for groups like Rotary, Kiwanis, Scouts, or sports
  • Have a regular volunteer and group sign up day in each and every community
  • Highlight the volunteer community groups in the recreation guides - have them up front
  • Make schools available free of charge to community groups in non school hours
  • Allow people to write off some of the property taxes through volunteering for community based groups

These are just quick ideas off the top me head, I ma not wedded to anyone of them. I am hoping others agree that there is a need for more social capital in our city and are willing to suggest ideas or take action to improve our social capital. There is a lot done to plan our city, but very little is done to improve the social capital.
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