Still half asleep and in my slippers, I crossed the front yard to reach the side of the road. I had just heard the truck go by; it was time to retrieve the empty garbage tote. I was about to wrap my fingers around the handle when through the corner of my right eye, I caught sight of a male middle-aged figure walking energetically up the street — he was wagging his finger, yelling at me; “Hey, it’s nine in the morning, shouldn’t you be at work? You know, pensioners like me depend on people like you pulling their weight!”
And while he talked, and I, dumbfounded, watched, he caught hold of the tote and wheeled it halfway to my front door. Then, he turned towards me again, a broad smile displayed on his face.
Suddenly, I saw it all clear: week after week for the past eight years, I had wondered how my tote got magically moved away from the road, and now, the “culprit” was here. Every Tuesday, my neighbour Tommy walks up and down the street, leaving people’s totes conveniently closer to their doors. I didn’t even know this man; what a nice gesture! For Tommy, it’s just a natural act of neighbourliness, but the implications go a lot further — it’s demonstrated that when many of us behave like him, communities are much happier, prosperous and healthier.
Social capital is what neighbourliness is called these days, and it’s the glue that holds societies together — having it at the neighbourhood and community level builds social cohesion that benefits the entire nation. It follows, then, that any resources we put into creating strong neighbourhoods will be well spent. A strong neighbourhood is one that is inclusive, vibrant, cohesive and safe. And how do we get to this place? Making sure that our community is socially mixed and not overcrowded, but dense. Shared public spaces, abundant social infrastructure and services must be easy to get to and accessible. These things, among others, promote interaction and prevent isolation.
If we direct our efforts this way, at the end of the day we’ll collect the dividends — a community’s vitality is a powerful asset because the social capital it creates attracts capital investment as well. The evidence is generously documented, even in the extreme case of China, where foreign investor trust is pretty hard to come by. Not only do socially richer provinces in China attract more foreign capital, but these are also the places where foreign firms establish ventures with local partners. It turns out that social capital is as important to economic development as economic capital! Hence, we have the recommendation to “build communities from the inside out” by John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. According to him, “everything you need is inside.”
Apparently, it was way back, in the 1970s, when Canadian urban planners came to accept that the social dimensions of neighbourhood life, like mutual support, matter at least as much as the physical place. Personally, I’m embarrassed to say it has taken me a full eight years to discover my neighbour Tommy was there. I believe I’m not alone — statistics show that only 25 per cent of us really know who lives next door. Well, how about a collective New Year’s resolution? In 2013, let’s take it upon ourselves to engage more with each other and create some social wealth.