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This article is an exploration of the findings of Putnam's concept of social capital as observed in Italy and findings from the evaluation of the Healthy Boston initiative, using social capital as the lens through which to view the Healthy Boston effort. Putnam's research established the importance of the traditions of lateral relationships in the development of civic societies in Italy. One of the primary premises of the Healthy Boston initiative was that by building trust through both lateral and vertical relationships, communities can better optimize their resources and improve their quality of life.
An early participant in the Healthy Cities Movement, Healthy Boston began in 1991 as an innovative and ambitious effort that supported community-defined coalitions throughout the city The coalitions were envisioned as vehicles in which communities could work inclusively and collaboratively to define their needs and resources, develop action plans, and make their neighborhoods "healthier" places to live. This article is not intended to be a rewriting of the Healthy Boston evaluation or a thorough exploration of the dynamics of social capital in the community change process. Rather, it reflects on two questions: What does the Healthy Boston research suggest about the nature of social capital in an American city, and what concerns might we have in applying it as a tool to transform communities here?(1)
Establishing Social Capital
Some communities just seem to be more fractious and contentious than others. The lack of cohesion in such communities makes it more difficult for members to create a consensus and muster the will to make positive change or to capitalize on opportunities. Other communities, though struggling with problems, consistently seem to have less difficulty recognizing an opportunity, creating a consensus, and moving forward. The range and predictability of community response to opportunity and challenge is a phenomenon observed by professionals and community members who struggle to find approaches to strengthen communities. Speculations about the effects of racial and ethnic tensions, socioeconomic factors, and institutional performance often digress into musings about karma, self-destructive tendencies, or comments like "It's got to be in the water," when examples of similar communities with very different responses to opportunities are shared. In light of these wide-ranging reflections, Putnam's work establishing social capital as a determinant in the economic and civic health of a community produced a collective sigh of relief. By tying a "soft concept" like patterns of relationships and trust development to economic prosperity - the bottom line - Putnam ratified what community organizers, union organizers, and many people who live and work in community have always known. Relationships matter, especially lateral relationships, which are the basis of building associations of peers. In fact, they are essential to our prosperity and effective democratic governance.
As Putnam so well demonstrates, patterns of community interaction are self-reinforcing and create enduring traditions that are beneficial or detrimental to the community. His work addresses one of the major problems that people working in communities encounter - the undervaluing of community connections. This has been reflected in the lack of emphasis on community networks both in community development strategies and funding priorities. Several years ago, a seasoned community activist was giving me a quick tour through his Hartford neighborhood. He pointed to a community center and noted disparagingly that they could get funding for bricks and mortar, but the "soft stuff" of relationship building and personal development necessary to move individuals and the community in a more positive direction was just not available. Establishing that organizing and relationship building are valuable services in a community was Putnam's extremely important contribution to communities and to those interested in funding community betterment activities. Putnam made clear that people aren't wasting their time developing relationships. What is less clear from his research is the step between the development of associations that are primarily social and those that use the power of extensive lateral networks to effectively negotiate vertical relationships - getting from choral groups to unions.
Healthy Boston Findings and Social Capital
The findings from the Healthy Boston Evaluation offer …