Cultivating Community Connections

Not all capital is tangible. Communities generate an often underappreciated asset called social capital, the relational glue that holds communities together, or as political scientist Robert Putnam defines it, "connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." As individuals in a community interact, work together, and trade favors, a level of trust and feelings of reciprocity form. This is what makes a community a community rather than just people living near each other.12

In industrial countries, social capital is an increasingly scarce asset, according to Putnam and other social scientists. Since 1985 the average American has lost connection to one confidant each—going from three other peo

Engaging Communities for a Sustainable World ple to confide in to just two. Today, nearly a quarter of Americans do not have anyone like that in their lives. But where social capital exists, or where there is the will to rebuild it through regenerating relationships, there is great opportunity to improve opportunity, life quality, and sustainability. Communities, regardless of the obstacles they face, can use social capital to form sustainable community development projects, empowering themselves as they work together on projects that increase their well-being while reducing their ecological impact.13

Social capital yields important dividends. Psychological research demonstrates that the breadth and depth of a person's social connections is the single best predictor of happiness. And social isolation translates directly into physical health concerns as well. More than a dozen long-term studies in Japan, Scandinavia, and the United States, for example, show that the chances of dying in a given year, no matter the cause, are two to five times greater for people who are socially isolated than for people with close family, friends, or community ties.14

Social capital is generated in a variety of ways. Some communities, particularly eco-villages and co-housing groups, do so by sharing resources. Some have a shared car available that residents can rent or borrow, thus freeing more of the community to live car-free. Many have shared major appliances, including washing machines and dryers. Others have created "tool libraries" for lawn mowers, chain saws, and other implements that may only be needed once a week, month, or year. One community tool is often more than enough and saves members significant cost in purchasing and maintaining these goods. Many people also barter food or goods they produce in exchange for what other residents produce. Along with goods, some communities share services, such as babysitting and day care, and even elder care. This helps create the ties that bind communities together.15

Sharing within a community also helps to establish a different cultural norm, one based in cooperation instead of conspicuous consumption and competition.

While an economist would regard these shared goods or nonmarket exchanges as a reduction in economic activity (and thus a negative development), they actually may increase community members' quality of life. A recent study of individuals living in eco-villages and co-housing communities found that although they earned significantly less than people in Burlington, Vermont (a town with a similar demographic makeup to the communities studied), members expressed life satisfaction levels equal to Burlingtonians. Indeed, 50 percent of residents had incomes of less than $15,000 a year yet life satisfaction levels equal to Burlingtonians—the majority of whom earned over $30,000 a year. The conclusion of the study was simple: ecovillage members successfully substituted social capital for the possessions they own, thus enjoying a similar quality of life with much less consumption—and as a result a reduced ecological impact as well.16

Sharing within a community also helps to establish a different cultural norm, one based in cooperation instead of conspicuous consumption and competition. Indeed, this mental shift can help channel the urge to "keep up with the Joneses" into a more constructive form—namely from one of rivalry over who has the biggest SUV or McMansion to who has the lowest ecological footprint. (See Chapter 4.)

Many communities have even institution-

Engaging Communities for a Sustainable World alized these educational efforts, providing schools for community children that maintain an ecocentric curriculum. For example, the Berea College Ecovillage in Kentucky includes the Berea Early Learning Center, for the students' children in day care (most residents of the ecovillage are "nontraditional" students who have children). This eco-friendly day care introduces preschool students to recycling, gardening, and composting.17

Throughout history, teahouses and coffeehouses have been a central staging ground to discuss revolutionary action.

Beyond the ecovillage, communities are trying to rebuild community connections in innovative ways, with one of the most interesting being the "third place." This term was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe informal public gathering places— the place after home and work (the first and second places) that people tend to spend their time in. Being informal gathering places, they have many important roles: connecting the community, integrating newcomers and visitors, offering staging areas in times of local crisis, and providing a set of local store owners who tend to watch over and help the community.18

Over the past several decades, neighborhood hangouts have increasingly been replaced by soulless franchises that are typically identical in design, lack local flavor, and rarely serve community needs. Today, however, many neighborhoods are starting to consciously recreate third places and the community ties that they facilitate. And some are even starting to recognize that these places can not only serve a central role in cultivating social capital, they can also serve as important tools in shaping environmental values.

These "sustainable third places" not only build community ties, they also adopt green business practices and help educate customers about living sustainably—using such tools as periodic lectures, discussion groups, informational guides, and books they sell. Sustainable third places can also synergisti-cally support other sustainable business sec-tors—particularly food production. Local restaurants, not bound by franchise contracts, can order food directly from local farmers, helping to support local agricultural production. And sustainable third places can encourage their customers to get engaged in sustainability efforts, for example helping to set up volunteer groups to work on a local ecological restoration project or environmental campaign.

One example of a sustainable third place is the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia. Judy Wicks founded the cafe in 1983 in a 100-year-old house on Sansom Street, after joining with her neighbors to fight to prevent this and other houses from being torn down to make room for a new shopping mall. The White Dog now fills three adjacent houses, serving up local food, running on wind power, and hosting regular "Table Talks" on a variety of social and environmental topics. Wicks was one of the first to serve local food in Philadelphia, a niche she could have attempted to monopolize. Instead, she started a foundation (and supported it with 20 percent of the cafe's profits) that worked to expand local food use in the city, by helping other restaurants to localize and connecting farmers and businesses in the city. And the White Dog is not alone. There are hundreds of sustainable third places around the world, each with its own priorities and projects.19

Cafes, in particular, have great potential to shape people's values and mobilize communities. Throughout history, teahouses and coffeehouses have been a central staging ground to discuss revolutionary action, with

Engaging Communities for a Sustainable World organizers of both the American and French Revolutions discussing plans and organizing actions in coffeehouses. Today, organizations like the Green Café Network are starting to mobilize cafe owners to use their spaces to "mainstream sustainability"—teaching millions of Americans who visit a cafe each day how they can live greener. The Network, started in San Francisco in 2007, helps locally owned cafes reduce their ecological footprints and become certified green businesses. It also aims to change customer consumption patterns and promote green lifestyle practices by using partner cafes to teach sustain-ability—through hosting talks, eco-art exhibits, and educational displays and distributing information.20

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