Community Building:
The Key to Vibrant, Friendly Cities

Ross C. Anderson
Beeley Lecture
Graduate School of Social Work
University of Utah
March 22, 2001

Before October 29, 1997, John Lambert and Andy Boschma knew each other only through their local bowling league at Ypsi-Arbor Lanes in Ypsi-lanti, Michigan. Lambert, a sixty-four-year-old retired employee of the University of Michigan Hospital, had been on a kidney transplant waiting list for three years when Boschma, a thirty-three-year-old accountant, learned casually of Lambert's need and unexpectedly approached him to offer to donate one of his own kidneys.

Quoted in a story in the Ann Arbor News, Mr. Lambert said, "Andy saw something in me that others didn't. When we were in the hospital, Andy said to me, "John, I really like you and have a lot of respect for you. I wouldn't hesitate to do this all over again." I got choked up." Mr. Boschma responded: "I obviously feel a kinship [with Lambert]. I cared about him before, but now I'm really rooting for him."

This story speaks to the power of human connectedness. The photograph accompanying it reveals that, in addition to their differences in profession and generation, Boschma is white and Lambert is African American.

The Creation of Social Capital

Excerpted from Robert Putnam's excellent book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, the relationship between these two men illustrates the importance of even the most casual interpersonal connections. They bowled together - and, as a result, a man's life was saved, and they bridged dissimilarities in age, profession, and race that may otherwise have prevented them from ever knowing each other.

These two men are the beneficiaries of what community builders call "social capital." Social capital is a term used to describe the value of social connectedness and networks, and the trust and cooperation that spring from them.

Building social capital, building strong communities, and fostering the creation of connections between people, are at the core of what a good city government does. Whether it is by creating opportunities for people to interact in their day-to-day lives by building streets that are pedestrian friendly, providing for civic engagement by encouraging people to be partners with their government, or by organizing gatherings to celebrate life in the city, there clearly is a role for city government in building social capital.

Social capital and community building hold the pieces of the mosaic of city life together - they help us to overcome tension between people because of their differences and allow us, instead, to celebrate how those differences provide glorious texture, taste and music to life in the city.

Building social capital and community are all the more important when we consider recent trends that seem to be taking American society in the opposite direction. According to research compiled by Mr. Putnam, over the last twenty years, political participation has decreased 25%, membership in job-related organizations has fallen by 35%, and church attendance has declined at least 10%. Similar decreases are evident in less formal social connections: having friends over to visit decreased 45%, family dinners are 33% less frequent, participation in team sports fell nearly 20%, and instances of gathering at the neighborhood bar fell by nearly 50% over the last twenty years. In almost every category, participation in social activities has decreased, and participation in individual activities has increased.

These indicators illustrate a broader social trend that has resulted in the breakdown of community, causing people to be more isolated, less cooperative, and perhaps more prone to harmful activities, such as crime and drug use.

Some might say these changes in our society are simply the inevitable result of social evolution and our technological age - that integrated, trusting communities are a thing of the past, especially in our large urban areas. But disconnectedness - destruction of community - is not at all inevitable. Individuals can still connect - we can still achieve community, in the best sense of the word - and good public policy can help in significant ways to accomplish it.

Revival of Community Building

Our country has experienced periods of declining social interactions before and has rebounded through community building efforts. One such period came during the late 1800s, when rapid industrialization, technology changes, and urbanization upset social organization and decreased community cohesiveness. Alarmed by these trends, civic and social leaders worked for the creation of institutions that would fit the new social system. Through political reforms, like women's suffrage, by creation of prominent volunteer organizations, such as the YMCA, and by following the leadership of such progressive reformers as Teddy Roosevelt and Jane Addams, civic entrepreneurs spurred a community revival, proving that even large urban areas can have cohesive communities and powerful social networks.

More recently, community-building efforts from around the country have demonstrated that a holistic approach can be successful in our current environment. Recognizing the strengths of individuals and communities, and taking the time to ask people to participate in the life of their community, can be the basis for community organizing that builds social capital.

These community-building efforts have focused on treating citizens as people, not problems, and on increasing social capital before physical capital. For example, the Atlanta Youth Future program recognized the power of relationships and social capital in their effort to improve the health of children, thus they created a system by which experienced parents could help new mothers in a "family-to-family" mentoring program. The ties created by the process led to a steep decrease in the infant mortality rate and also built life-long relationships that help to strengthen the fabric of community.

Community-Building in Salt Lake City

We are implementing this way of building community in Salt Lake City. With every decision we make, we consider the impact on social capital - on whether or not our programs will bring people together or take them further apart. Last month, our efforts received recognition from the National Crime Prevention Council. In its annual report on crime, the council named Salt Lake City as a national model for our community-oriented policing efforts, which empower citizens to make their communities safer by participating in citizen watch groups and problem-solving Community Action Teams.

These teams don't just report the problem and file the paper work; they actually meet face-to-face with community members, go to their neighborhood, and see the problem first-hand. They acknowledge the importance of the issue by giving focused, careful attention to the residents' concerns. Then, they work with residents to craft an effective solution. Salt Lake City's crime rate fell by 7.4% last year.

Community revival and a civic renaissance are proven possibilities. In Salt Lake City, we are demonstrating that we can make a difference in our neighborhoods, we can bring people together, we can bridge the gaps in our communities, and we can reverse the trends of the past two decades.

Our task is not easy, but it is a challenge well worth undertaking. Our communities are incredibly complex, many variables influence the cohesiveness of our social networks, and the issues that we face in Salt Lake City are not unlike those seen in urban areas across the country.

Identifying and Overcoming Social Divisions

One of our most significant challenges is the increased division and tension evident among social and ethnic groups in Salt Lake City, including obvious divisions based on religion. Although we are frequently uncomfortable talking about this, it would be dishonest to ignore the fact that our community has experienced divisions based on religious beliefs. Evidence of it is abundant. Any reader of last Sunday's Salt Lake Tribune coverage of the "Mormon Olympics" issue can see the divisiveness that results from stereotypes that separate and alienate people from each other. Our objective is to build bridges wherever possible. Perhaps we will tear down some of the prejudices when people see that a Bud World at Gallivan Center - with the Clydesdales and all - will not transform our city into a Sodom and Gomorrah.

Government's Role in Creating Social Divisions

Divisions are also visible along ethnic and class lines and are often exacerbated by government actions. For example, the very visible, physical division created by I-15 has led to battles back and forth between Salt Lake City's "West Side" and "East Side." Containing few breaks, I-15's impenetrable wall slices our community in two, making community interaction between the east and west more difficult. Where neighbors used to exchange views over the fence, ten lanes of asphalt and thousands of speeding cars now divide them.

The need to build bridges between segments of our community becomes even more urgent when we consider newly released census data shows an 80% increase in the racial and ethnic population of Salt Lake City over the last ten years. This change is a cause for celebration. It means our community is gaining the diversity that will prevent us from ever becoming a place like George Orwell's 1984 nightmare landscape, which creates the tyranny of homogeneity. However, some in our community are fearful of change, and they are fearful of the differences among people. It is this fear that makes our community-building so critical.

The divisions created by high-speed roads and highways are largely the result of the federally subsidized "urban flight" of the last 50 years that led many of the more affluent members of our society to leave the cities for the suburbs. Fleeing from what they saw as "urban decay," increasing crime, and ethnic groups against whom they had racist attitudes, these suburbanites left behind only those who could not afford to leave. Of course, many of those left behind could not afford to leave because they were turned down for loans due to racist banking policies and red lining.

With much of the economic base of the cities gone, the remaining communities became even more economically disadvantaged, more crime-ridden, and more isolated. Of course, those who left the cities proceeded to create in the suburbs many of the same problems they fled, and soon found themselves fleeing again, searching for even more isolation and detachment, and continuing the cycle of urban sprawl. Sadly, this cycle continues today, as we see pressure to build more highways to serve suburban development, and our local governments struggle to provide services to dispersed residents.

Gasoline subsidies have also contributed to sprawl development and the isolation that accompanies it. Federal subsidies have kept gasoline prices artificially low, and over time have made wasteful, long-distance driving affordable for more and more Americans. Add to that the huge disparity between government investments in roads as compared to mass transit. As Kenneth Jackson noted in Crabgrass Farmer (250), "according to Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, 75 percent of government expenditures for transportation in the Unites States in the postwar generation went for highways as opposed to 1 percent for urban mass transit."

The Isolation Resulting From Automobile Dependence

Another factor contributing to social isolation is our dependence on the automobile. The average American driver spends 443 hours per year - the equivalent of 55 eight-hour workdays - behind the wheel. The incredible amount of time that we spend driving takes away from time we could spend with our families, with other community members, or even just enjoying life. In fact, the Saguaro Seminar report, "Working Together," demonstrates that every 10 minutes of commuting time per day decreases an individual's overall civic participation by 10%.

The tension and pressure associated with commuting also weigh heavily on our budgets - the average household now spends nearly as much on automobile purchase, upkeep, fuel, and insurance as they do on food and healthcare combined.

Most suburbanites continue to work in the city centers, causing dangerous, air-polluting traffic and leaving the city center a veritable "ghost town" after work is over. On their way home, these commuters feel the combined frustration of work and traffic, taking it all out on the faceless driver who just cut them off in traffic. If these two drivers were sitting next to each other on a commuter train, they might instead be talking in a friendly fashion about the score of the Jazz game.

Sprawl was blatantly promoted by automobile, oil and tire companies that purchased transit systems in cities throughout the country, including Salt Lake City's trolley system, and ripped them apart, making dependence on the automobile a way of life in our cities. In the remarkable book, Suburban Nation, the authors describe the situation as follows:

The preference in Washington for roads over rails was due in no small part to influence peddling by the auto industry, as continues to be the case. With and without the government?s blessing, the automakers have a history of mercenary acts, the most notorious of which was portrayed in the film who Framed Roger Rabbit? In what Jim Kunstler [The Geography of Nowhere, 91-92] describes as "a systematic campaign to put streetcar lines out of business all over America," a consortium of auto, tire, and oil companies purchased and tore up over one hundred streetcar systems nationwide, an act for which General Motors was ultimately convicted of criminal conspiracy and fined a grand total of $5,000.

Unfortunately, our single-minded dependence on the automobile for our travel needs keeps us away from our own neighborhoods and distances us from even casual interactions with those around us. Research by social psychologists has demonstrated that even the most casual of social interactions generate trust and cooperation. A study conducted by John Darley in 1970 showed that when a stranger talks briefly in the hallway to an unwitting subject, the subject more quickly provides help when she subsequently witnesses the stranger having an apparent seizure than if there had been no previous contact.

Social Disconnectedness and Crime

With our dwindling casual and organized social interactions, we have more crime in our cities. It's that simple. What were once tight-knit communities, where social pressures reduced crime, are now neighborhoods where anonymity and fear prevent crimes from even being reported. According to Putnam's Bowling Alone, the states with the lowest per capita murder rates also have the highest amount of social connectedness and community participation. In fact, Putnam's surveys show that social connectedness and civic participation are better indicators of crime rates than education levels, the rate of single-parent households, and income inequality.

The Strengthening of Communities - and of Individual Lives - From Diversity

As immigrants come to our cities, they tend to move to the abandoned urban core because of low rents and proximity to members of their own nationality. This further concentrates the non-English speakers, providing a convenient target for racist policies such as our recent "English Only" law.

We need to bring people together to appreciate the value and diversity of their communities, to encourage mutual learning, and to break down stereotypes. Instead of thinking of others as abstractions - instead of thinking of people as "Hispanics," as "prisoners," as "African-Americans," as "gays" or "lesbians" - we must get to the point to really knowing the other - of relating to the other as a person. When we can put a real face on a person from another ethnicity or economic class and share their stories, hopes, and concerns, we begin to realize how similar we all are to each other and discover that our differences are actually interesting assets that can bring new perspectives to old problems. And those differences enrich each of our lives.

Human Interaction and Community-Building

The residents of Salt Lake City have an unquenchable thirst for this interaction. As government leaders and community members, we need to create the opportunities for community interaction. When we do, as we have seen time and time again, people jump at the chance. Just show up at the Gallivan Center Twilight Concert Series on a Thursday night in the summer, and you will see thousands of residents, from across our city, happily sitting, dancing, singing, and eating together. Or make a trip to Salt Lake City's Living Traditions Festival, held every year in May. Tens of thousands of people come to celebrate and experience the music, art and food of other cultures.

In the near future, we will be adding to these opportunities. This summer, we will be creating a neighborhood festival program, to encourage neighborhoods to organize and host street festivals, and we will see the second annual Salt Lake City music festival in the fall. Two years from now, we will have a stunning 10-acre block just east of the City and County building. This block will feature a world-class public library, with reading rooms, indoor and outdoor dining, an outdoor amphitheater and a roof garden. The block will also contain a science and technology center, arts and culture organizations, and four acres of beautifully landscaped open space, with fountains, waterfalls, public art, and gathering areas, large and small. With a little luck, and a little wisdom on the part of some elected County officials, this block may even become the new home of the Hansen Planetarium. It will be the premier place for scientific, educational, and cultural interaction, and will be Salt Lake City's most vital and vibrant gathering place. People are hungry for this interaction, and providing these opportunities for exchange will continue to bring our citizens together and strengthen the bonds of our community.

Social Capital and Well-Being of Our Youth

Another strong corollary to social capital is the health and well being of our children. Explaining this correlation, Mr. Putnam writes:

States whose residents trust other people, join organizations, volunteer, vote, and socialize with friends are the same states where children flourish: where babies are born healthy and where teenagers do not tend to become parents, drop out of school, get involved in violent crime, or die prematurely due to suicide or homicide.

Given this insight, we can better understand the problems facing our youth and families. Members of less-connected communities are less organized and less motivated to look after each other's children. Further, the same pressures of increased work responsibilities for mothers and fathers that undermine overall civic participation also reduce the amount of time families spend together working on developing values and social skills. Technology also pulls adults, children and families away from important social interactions that build strong communities. Just consider the human disconnectedness of a "virtual university." Perhaps the strongest and most obvious pull in this direction comes from what the Saguaro Seminar calls the "veritable death ray for civic life," the television.

Turn Off the TV and Connect With Others

Let's be honest about it - because we know it's the truth: If you want a better community, if you want closer families, if you want better educated, well-adjusted children, if you want better physical fitness, if you want a more enriched life, turn off the T.V.

The impact of television on the health of our youth is well documented - the numerous hours children spend watching TV every day have substantially increased the rate of obesity among our youth. Perhaps it is no surprise then that involvement in social groups that increase social capital also increase overall health. Nineteenth century sociologist Emile Durkheim discovered this point when researching for his famous work, Suicide. Through his research, Durkheim found that mental health problems, especially suicide, are less prevalent in tightly knit religious communities, among married people, and in times of national unity. Recent studies of the impact of social connectedness on health, both physical and mental, by James House have shown that the positive contributions to health by social connectedness are as strong as the negative impacts of cigarette smoking.

Getting Practical: Community-Building Initiatives

In Salt Lake City, we are taking a practical approach to community building. First, we try to apply the "social impact principal" to every decision we make in our city. This is to say that we try to involve as many people in our decision making processes as possible so that we can weigh the impact of our decisions on whether or not they will decrease or increase social capital. Whether we're looking at a zoning ordinance, the creation of a skateboard park, or the best method for garbage disposal, we will attempt to do it in a way that helps to build social capital.

The second side of our community building effort consists of specific initiatives, which bring people together to constructively address community issues. Examples of this include the opportunities we have created for civic engagement provided through our Saturday Morning with the Mayor and News and Community Conference meetings, as well as issue based community dialogues, such as those recently conducted on the issues of low-level radiation storage and the fraternity situation at the University of Utah.

Focusing on Informal Interactions

We also work to foster opportunities for informal social interaction. Jane Jacobs, whom some describe as the mother of new urbanism, believes that informal social interactions form the core of the entire concept of community. In her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she explains that contact with the local florist, the neighbor walking the dog, and the children playing in the park help us develop as community members a sense of continuity and responsibility for others. Referring to these interactions, Jacobs wrote,

The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level - most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone - is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal and neighborhood need.

In Salt Lake City, we are focusing on initiatives that increase informal contact between residents and on urban design and planning in a way that creates gathering places and events where our residents can come together physically and get to know one another. Perhaps it's less than this - just a brief conversation, a chess game, even just a friendly nod or an observation of the other.

With this vision, we are also investing considerable resources in our city parks and recreation facilities and working to make them more friendly and inviting. We recently opened the Salt Lake City Sports Complex on Guardsman's Way that now houses two Olympic size ice sheets, a fitness center and weight room, and a dance studio. All of these provide ways for us to stay in, or get into, shape while interacting with other people. Nothing brings people together like sharing an interaction while doing what we love. Whether it is conversing while watching our dogs play together in an off-leash area or talking about the next city-sponsored race while stretching before a jog, our parks provide us with invaluable opportunities to get to know each other.

We need to expand these opportunities for casual interactions to include every area of our city. By encouraging more outdoor dining, by making our pedestrian environment more safe and exciting, by encouraging people to get out of the isolation of their cars and use mass transit, and by revitalizing our downtown so that it attracts people in droves, we are working to build a city where people learn to enjoy the company of others and respect their opinions and uniqueness.

Another important facet of increasing informal connections focuses on assistance for our local small businesses. It is the essence of community to walk into a neighborhood business and be greeted by name. For this reason, Ray Oldenburg, a Florida sociologist who has written extensively on community building, claims that places like the neighborhood coffee shop or grocery store, which give people places to socialize, are "the heart of a community's social vitality and the grass roots of a democracy." Instead of promoting sprawl inducing highways and malls that take business away from our communities, Salt Lake City is focused on promoting our local businesses, in pockets throughout our city, so that they can serve as small social centers in our neighborhoods.

We encourage participation in community activist groups, volunteer organizations, and arts groups. When we promote self-expression, perhaps through the public display of art, we give our communities a better view of their neighbors and open up new realms of understanding.

Our new youth murals program accomplishes this while providing our children with productive alternatives to drug use and petty crime. If we are truly committed to building our communities, we must focus on creating social capital for our youth. Our children need positive role models and exciting programs to spur their interest in community participation and good citizenship. To accomplish this, a wide variety of after-school programs, like our new YouthCity program, and summer programs must be emphasized and supported.

Collaboration With the School of Social Work

Friendly, integrated, diverse, vibrant communities provide an atmosphere where children, as well as adults, can thrive and enjoy life. The challenges we face in our city require us to use every available asset to further our community building. I am excited to announce tonight a new partnership between the School of Social Work and Salt Lake City to actively work on building our community. With a focus on bridging cultural gaps and increasing diverse participation, we will work collaboratively with a two-part mission. First we will work together on an informational campaign to bolster participation in community councils and city government committees and boards by diverse and under-represented members of our community. Our second focus for bridging cultural gaps will be to work together to organize community festivals and special programs for refugees that will give people the tools and opportunities to better understand one another and enjoy living in the same community.

We are excited to collaborate with the School of Social Work, with your expertise and vigor, and look forward to accomplishing great things in our community with your help.


Let us all remember that communities and neighborhoods are made of people, not streets and buildings, not governments or councils. All of us are members of our communities and can make a great difference simply by talking to our neighbors, patronizing neighborhood businesses, and getting involved to solve local problems. If we all invest personally in relationships and our communities, remembering that these reside at the core of what it means to be human, we can and will enjoy happier, more integrated communities that will provide support and vitality for us all.