'Social Capital' Makes a Neighborhood

Article excerpt


Walk around just about any neighborhood in the Greater Washington area, and you'll see more than a few signs of spring. The requisite For Sale signs have appeared along with the warmer weather - but certain neighborhoods have special touches all their own, such as block parties and community events, that can make all the difference in when those For Sale signs become Sold signs.

Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities calls it social capital, the ability of neighbors to form formal and informal networks that together spark a spirit of community. It's a collective characteristic seen in the variety of day-to-day interactions between neighbors who routinely keep an eye on the neighborhood and an eye out for one another's children.

When social capital is involved, the size of your home or your bankbook matters a lot less than a willingness to know - and engage with - your neighbors. Increasingly, that kind of neighborhood personality is just what many of today's homebuyers are seeking.

In the buyer's mind, it adds value to the neighborhood, says Brian Block, a managing broker with RE/MAX Allegiance in McLean, Va. It's about having a sense of place, where you can go home and get to know your neighbors.

Tucked away just past the heart of Old Town Alexandria, Del Ray is a place where residents can walk to get an evening ice cream or the morning paper. Its success and neighborly feel have a lot to do with the built environment. Many of the homes were built in the 1920s, when front porches were common and built-in garages were not, so Del Ray residents get to sit outside to catch an evening breeze and can catch a chat with a neighbor when they are walking from the car to the porch.

Contrast that to the cookie-cutter suburbs of the post-World War II years. They may have been safe, snug and residential, but they didn't always make it easy to be neighborly, with built-in garages, no front porches and nowhere to walk.

Developers then didn't pay much attention to local dynamics, says William Hanna, professor in the urban studies and planning program at the University of Maryland. Suburban neighborhoods can be very far away from resources.

For the past several years, Mr. Hanna has been focusing on Langley Park. The Prince George's County neighborhood is one of those midcentury suburbs and today presents a number of challenges for the new working-class residents who have come to live in its apartments and modest homes, built at a time when developers were less concerned with walking neighborhoods and green space. In the meantime, it is poised for development with the arrival of Metro's new Purple Line.

That's the main challenge, Mr. Hanna says. How do you maintain a viable neighborhood when some people want to bulldoze?

These days, just about everything - from geography to parents who are working longer hours to smaller families and greater and more frequent mobility - can make social capital pretty difficult to come by, regardless of your socioeconomic status.

People have more insecurity in their own lives, says Gregory Squires, professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington University. That means they are more reliant on personal resources than on the neighborhood.

That's one reason many recent developments have attempted to borrow something of the feel of Del Ray and neighborhoods like it, mixing retail with residential space in various price ranges, promoting strolling with sidewalks and parks, and adding a commercial core within easy walking distance of homes.

Kentlands [in Gaithersburg, Md.], Cameron Station [in Alexandria] and others are all trying to capture that small-town feel, says Mr. Block, whose own condo community hosts happy hours and other events designed to bring neighbors together. …