Social Capital: How Parks and Recreation Help to Build Community

By DeGraaf, Don; Jordan, Deb | Parks & Recreation, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Social Capital: How Parks and Recreation Help to Build Community


DeGraaf, Don, Jordan, Deb, Parks & Recreation


They come from all over your community. Players, coaches, referees, families and friends join together each fall Saturday for youth soccer games. The parks and recreation department has worked hard to ensure the benefits of participating in this program, including the new skills gained, the teamwork, the joy of competing with and against others, and the new friends made. Yet the benefits of such a program move beyond the participants to the families and friends watching these games. The spectators meet and greet one another, talk about the weather, the game and community events. As they connect with one another at many levels, they are in the process of building the social capital needed to increase the quality of life of their community.

Put succinctly, social capital refers to the collective value of all social networks (who people know) and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ("norms of reciprocity") (www.bowlingalone.com/socialcapital.php3). Researchers have determined that social capital is as important as economic capital for successful societies. Social capital encompasses such social elements as trust (social trust and inter-ethnic trust), connections with others (formal and informal) and diversity of friendships, participation in politics (conventional and protest politics), giving and volunteering, faith-based engagement, and equality of civic engagement across the community (www.cfsv.org/communitysurvey/ results.htm).

A Little Background

The first official use of the term "social capital" was by L. Judson Hanifan in 1916, Hanifan noted the need for and importance of renewed community involvement to sustain democracy and development. He was reporting on the demise of neighborliness and civic engagement, which resulted from the decline of such events as debating societies, barn raisings and apple cuttings. As these customs were abandoned, people became less neighborly, and the community's social life gave way to family isolation and community stagnation. Once he had identified the problem, Hanifan went on to outline how social capital could be fostered. (Note the importance he placed on recreation.)

When the people of a given community have become acquainted with one another and have formed a habit of coming together occasionally for entertainment, social discourse and personal enjoyment, then by skillful leadership this social capital will be directed toward the general improvement of community well-being (Hanifan, 1916 as cited by Putnam & Goss, 2002, p. 4).

Since 1916, the term "social capital" has been used in a variety of ways. Jane Jacobs used the term in her book Death and Life of Great American Cities to emphasize the collective value of informal neighborhood ties in modern cities. Coleman (1990) distinguished social capital from natural, physical, human or economic capital. From this distinction, Putnam (2000) and others have identified social capital as the features of social life--networks, norms and trust that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.

In recent years, scholars in many fields have begun to explore the many dimensions of social capital, and this work has grown exponentially. One reason why social capital has received so much attention recently is the work of Robert Putnam, Putnam (2002) documents the decline of social capital in America as reflected by decreasing membership in voluntary organizations such as the National Boy Scouts of America, the League of Women Voters, National Parent Teacher Associations and the American Red Cross. Putnam singles out four primary factors contributing to the declining levels of civic engagement and decreasing social capital: longer working hours and increasing time pressures, increasing suburban sprawl, television and other forms of mass media, and a generational shift from the civic-minded generation of World War II to a more "me-oriented" generation.

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