Civic Engagement to Build a Great Community
By Ed Everett, Former City Manager
As employees of Redwood City, much of the work we do for and with
the citizens of our City is guided by our core purpose: “Build
a Great Community Together.” For me, the concept of ‘community
building’ is at the very heart of the City’s values
Redwood City operates both efficiently and effectively, based on
benchmarking data we collect and analyze; however there is always
room for improvement. A well-led and well-managed city, while necessary,
is not sufficient to achieve excellence. To become a city that is
a step above all other cities, a city that is the envy of others,
a city that is talked about, Redwood City must become a stronger
community and not just a well-run city.
Redwood City is evolving into a strong community, but to foster
this evolution we need to better understand the role of civic engagement
and participation, and recognize what has happened nationally in
this regard over the past 40 or 50 years.
I’ve found a great deal of valuable information in a book
entitled Bowling Alone – The Collapse and Revival of the American
Community, by Robert Putnam, which provides an in-depth analysis
of the issue of “civic engagement.” The general conclusion,
based on strong analytical data, is that civic engagement/participation
has dramatically decreased nation-wide from a high point in the
early 1960s to the present low point.
In general, the author defines civic engagement/participation (or
“social capital”) as a community’s membership
in national groups/civics groups/religious organizations; political
activities; informal connections; altruism/giving; and trust and
honesty (among other factors). Without question, there has been
a precipitous decline in each of these areas of social capital.
This decline represents a loss of a “sense of community,”
and it is widespread and significant. It is my passion that our
City government can, and must, play a significant role in turning
this national trend around here in Redwood City.
In order to know how we can impact this sharp decline in civic
participation and social capital we first must know what caused
that reported decline. The author has identified what he believes
are the four key factors contributing to this decline in social
1) Pressures of time and money, including the particular pressures
on two-career families. People are busier, they have more demands
on their time, and more pressure to make money – all resulting
in less time and energy spent in civic engagement.
2) Suburbanization, commuting, and urban sprawl, resulting in people
being more disconnected from their community, more spread out and
less likely to participate in civic activities. The author estimates
that f these first two factors account for 10% (each) of the decline
in social capital.
3) The effect of electronic entertainment – primarily television
– accounts for perhaps 25% of the problem. Overall, the use
of televisions, VCRs, personal computers, the Internet, and video
games are all on the increase, and the author concludes that this
use is a direct cause of a decrease in civic participation; for
example, studies show that in the evenings Americans, above all
else, watch TV thus reducing available time (and perhaps willingness?)
for civic engagement.
4) The most significant contributor to the decrease in civic engagement,
according to the author, is generational change – the slow,
steady, and inevitable replacement of the civically-involved generation
by their less-involved children and grandchildren. This may account
for perhaps 50% of the overall decline.
The author concludes that, “Each generation…since the
1950s has been less engaged in community affairs than their immediate
predecessor.” Interestingly, those born before the mid-1940s
and those born after 1964 both see family, friends, and co-workers
as providing a sense of belonging. However, these two groups separate
significantly when it comes to seeing neighbors, churches, local
communities, and organizations as giving them a sense of community.
In summary, we see a nationwide trend that started in the mid 1960s
of civic disengagement, or a loss of social capital. We now know
that the main causes appear to be time spent on electronic entertainment,
and generational changes. So what difference does this all make?
Are we worse off because of this loss of social capital? Should
I propose that this decrease in social capital makes a significant
difference in very important areas in our community. First, here
are some reasons why social capital is important.
1. allows citizens to resolve collective problems more clearly
without always looking to government to solve their problems;
2. “greases the wheels” that allow communities to
advance smoothly without constant fighting, bickering, or polarizing;
3. improves our lot by widening our awareness of the many ways
in which our fates are linked together.
More pragmatically, the author developed an index of 14 social
capital variables, then ranked each state. States with higher social
capital are centered over the head waters of the Mississippi and
Missouri rivers and extend east and west along the Canadian border.
States with low social capital are generally in the South. California
and the mid-Atlantic states are generally average in the social
The author examines five broad policy areas and correlates them
with high/low social capital. Let’s look at three of those
areas in more detail:
Education and Child Welfare
The author states that there is a strong statistical correlation
between high social capital and positive child development (although
not necessarily a cause/effect). He further concludes that social
capital is second only to poverty in the breadth and depth of effect
on children’s lives.
In fact, social capital of a community or area has a greater impact
on child development than the educational level of the adult population,
the ratio of single parent families, and a state’s racial
composition. The author also draws the strong correlation between
social capital and child welfare, educational performance, and low
TV watching. The facts are indisputable: low social capital/civic
participation has a direct negative impact on childhood development.
This is one good reason we should care about this historical downward
trend in social capital.
Safe and Productive Neighborhoods
The author concludes that high social capital fosters lower criminal
activity. He focuses on a state’s per capita murder rate as
an indicator of many criminal activities, and his research shows
that states with more social capital have proportionally fewer murders.
The author says that social capital is about as important as poverty,
urbanism and racial composition, and is more important than educational
level, rate of single parent households, and income inequality,
in determining a state’s homicide prevalence.
The author states that there is some evidence to suggest that community
policing, a kind of “applied social capital” does in
fact reduce social disorder and crime, in part through the development
and activation of local social capital.
Health and Happiness
The author discovered that the statistical connection between social
capital and positive health and well being is as strong as the statistical
connection between smoking and poor health. In fact, in the author’s
view, the research concludes that moving to a high social capital
state would do almost as much good for your health as quitting smoking.
Numerous studies tell us that social engagement has an independent
influence on how long we live. The author concludes - “If
you belong to no groups but decide to join one (and be an active
member) you cut you risk of dying over the next year in half. If
you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss up statistically
whether you should stop smoking or start joining.”
Happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s
social connections. The author looked at the relationship of happiness
to income, education, and marriage and concludes that “regular
club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance
is the ‘happiness equivalent’ of getting a college degree
or more than doubling your income. Civic connections rival marriage
and affluence as predictors of life’s happiness.”
Whether folks want to believe it or not, the statistical data shows
that social capital is directly related to and causes higher educational
performance, positive child development, community safety, and personal
health and happiness. I’m sure you’ll agree that these
are powerful and important implications.
Given that social capital has fallen from the 1960’s to present,
given that we know many of its causes but not all, given that social
capital plays such an important role in education, child welfare,
safety, health and happiness, then what are we going to do to improve
social capital in Redwood City? I’ve noted
elsewhere some of the programs that we, as your City government,
are engaged in to try and help reverse this trend.
More importantly, I want your thoughts and ideas on this, as we
focus on trying to answer this very important question. Send me
an email at firstname.lastname@example.org,
and I promise to incorporate your ideas as the City and the people
of Redwood City move forward to build a great community together.