By: Kathleen Wolf, Ph.D. and Mary Ann Rozance, M.S.
May 20, 2013
Cite: Wolf, K.L., and M.A. Rozance. 2013. Social Strengths - A Literature Review. In: Green Cities: Good Health (www.greenhealth.washington.edu). College of the Environment, University of Washington.
Urban green spaces can provide a neutral space within which people come together, social interactions occur (that include people from different backgrounds), and relationships or partnerships take form. While personal goals or desires are achieved, community building and increased social capital also emerge, particularly if people share work on a project or goal. Individual benefits, improved public health, and social resilience are potential positive outcomes.
City parks, gardens, and open spaces are often filled with people of all ages and backgrounds looking for a brief respite from their bustling urban lifestyle. Public green spaces draw people for many reasons: to relax, find inspiration, exercise, and to gather with friends and family. While there, they inevitably interact with others, be it a smile in passing, joining in informal discussion, or play. These seemingly banal and unimportant social interactions can contribute substantially to community enhancement.
Researchers and social theorists have looked at the relationship between urban green spaces and community building. From casual interactions to organized events, urban green spaces can provide a neutral space within which peoplegather, people from different backgrounds come together and interact socially, and where relationships and partnerships take form. While personal goals or desires are pursued, community building and increased social capital also emerge, particularly if people share work on a project or goal. A sense of connectedness fosters greater trust and cooperation among individuals, potentially leading to greater community resilience in the face of adversity. These social dynamics help promote community wellness and social cohesion, critical components of a well-functioning society.
People regularly gather together to accomplish a goal, relax, recreate, or enjoy a physical space. It is through these different interactions that community is formed. Community can result from the creation or enhancement of a place shared by neighboring individuals (such as a physical neighborhood community) or it can arise from the creation of a club or association in which individuals share a common interest or activity. At the core of every community are individuals that share values, ethics, or beliefs.
Early on sociologists defined “community” as a group of people living and interacting within specific geographical boundaries. The definition has since expanded beyond geographical terms and can include a social group of any size sharing the same belief, values, interests, intentions, needs, or place and is encouraged by social exchanges.8
Some types of community are defined by the level of social cohesion or interrelatedness among individuals, whether residing near each other or not.9 Community may also form around purpose; it can be a collection of people with differing but harmonious views, skills, perceptions, and so on who can, with some outside stimulus (e.g., funding, professional advice, or associated groups), develop in a cooperative way to achieve valued outcomes.10 For example, a “business community” is a group of individuals that share economic interests; programs or actions define their connections.
The concept of community has many attributes and expressions, but key terms and processes are “social interaction,” “social cohesion,” and “social capital.”
Social interaction is defined as formal or informal opportunity for people to attend to their interpersonal relationships. It includes neighborly, casual social encounters, community participation, and social support.11 Social exchanges can be as spontaneous as smiling at a stranger as one passes by or as casual as saying hello to a neighbor and asking about their family’s wellbeing. Such casual interactions in day-to-day life between people of different backgrounds are the starting point of interpersonal bonds and the basis of cohesion.12,13,14 Casual, informal contact helps individuals feel accepted by others within their community, leading to a sense of belonging.11
Public spaces offer opportunity for open interactions between people of different backgrounds.14,15 Some cultural theorists argue that interactions in public spaces are too informal to form a sense of shared values; others assert that such interactions can and do lead to social cohesion.16 Public spaces enable both incidental and brief interactions as well as intentional and lengthier interactions,17 and any level of interaction may serve to alleviate tensions in a neighborhood that can otherwise hinder a sense of community.14
Social cohesion is the interdependence between members of a community experienced as shared loyalties and solidarity. Social cohesion keeps a society in order.18 Extreme divisions between groups and/or individuals signal a lack of social cohesion. Sociologists have noted the importance of social cohesion in community formation and in maintaining a healthy society.19
Social capital is loosely defined as the “glue” that holds a community together.18 It emerges within networks of social relations that are characterized by norms of trust and reciprocity and in which there is a shared give-and-take in daily life.20 There are numerous theoretical perspectives on social capital. One focuses on the ability of a community to encourage participation, organization and interaction.18 Increasing a community’s social capital is believed to be a route to strengthening and enhancing community wellness. Theory of social capital also considers benefits to individuals. By enhancing social capital in their relationships, individuals can further their own goals.21,22 Social capital makes it possible to accomplish things that cannot be accomplished by individuals in its absence23 and supports conditions for mutual benefit.22
Following the industrial revolution and modernization, cultural theorists recognized that the basis of community underwent a transformation.19 Toennies observed that the focus of community dynamics changed from kin and small group interpersonal loyalties (termed Gemeinschaft) to relationships that are chosen to promote individual self-interest (or Gesellschaft). The previous village-based social fabric was weakened due to cultural emphasis on capital and business efficiency.Durkheim held a more positive view on societal change, but was concerned about the onset of “anomie”: that social norms and values would be so weakened that individuals felt little moral guidance or ties to society.
In Bowling Alone, Robert Putman wrote about the ongoing decline of a sense of community in current times.23 Putman identified contemporary forces and patterns and ascribed decreasing rates of participation in social organizations or community activities to an increase in individualistic behavior. Decreases in time and money, increased suburbanization, generational changes, and electronic entertainments are conditions that he proposes have lead to reduced sense of community and lower social cohesion relative to previous decades.
Why is an analysis of community important? Why would community leaders be interesting in building more opportunities for interaction, cohesion, and thus increased social capital?
Social relationships are important to individuals in all cultures and at all times throughout their lives.5 Individuals and groups within communities with strong social cohesion and social capital experience many positive benefits as the result of community wellness. For example, neighborhood peers and family members can greatly affect youth behavior.24 Children and youth in close-knit communities are less likely to participate in health-threatening behaviors such as smoking, drinking, gang involvement, or drug use.7 Stronger neighborhood social ties provide more available adult guidance and role models for the community’s youth. Also, elderly individuals with strong social connections have lower rates of early mortality,25,26,27 reduced suicide rates,28,29 less fear of crime,30,31 and better physical health.5,32
Strong community relationships may prompt individuals to work together to achieve common goals (e.g., strive to create clean and safe public spaces), to exchange valuable information, and to maintain informal social controls (e.g., discourage crime or other undesirable behaviors), all of which can directly or indirectly influence personal health.6 Communities in which residents experience frequent interactions, high mutual trust, and social reciprocity have been linked with lower homicide rates33 and less crime.34,35 Conversely, neighborhoods lacking social cohesion and community wellness have been linked to social disorder, anxiety, and depression.36,37,38
*Lower mortality rates39,40
Well-managed vegetation may be one of the most important features that promote the development of social ties.5 Studies show that the presence of trees and grass is related to the rate of use of outdoor spaces, the amount of social activity that takes place within them, and the proportion of social to nonsocial activities they support. Physical features influence social contact among neighbors, and nature plays an important role in creating vital neighborhood spaces.1 Research explains why urban green areas may help promote social ties:
Having outdoor common space does not of itself promote social ties. Features of the urban physical environment, such as crowding, noise and pollution, and perceptions of negative conditions (especially threats to safety), all affect human behavior.51 Urban parks can facilitate social cohesion by creating space for social interactions; yet, outdoor common spaces also may be barren and uninviting.5,3
The implications of urban green space for public health and epidemiology are a focus of recent research as it appears that social cohesion positively influences public health in multiple ways.39,52For instance, one study found higher risk of death during heart attack recovery in men who were socially isolated.53 Experiences of greenspace, and any associated well-being benefits, are mediated through people’s local social interactions. The associations between social relations and social health (as well as individual mental and physical health) are now being more thoroughly explored, including how greenspace can be planned and managed in ways that is more meaningful to different people and groups.54
Some communities experience disruptions (such as loss of a major job providing industry) or a catastrophic disaster (such as hurricane damage). Recent studies are exploring how community-based natural resource management is important to disaster relief and recovery.55 Humans, faced with a disaster, as individuals and as communities, often seek engagement with nature, working together to restore the built environment, including parks and memorials. Urgent biophilia refers to the purposeful contact with green space that supports human efforts to summon and demonstrate resilience in the face of a crisis.56 The affinity (or biophilia) that humans have for nature, the process of remembering that attraction, and the urge to express it through creation of restorative environments may confer resilience across multiple social scales, from individuals to neighborhoods and entire cities.
Community gardens are often grass roots initiatives and can transform dilapidated vacant lots into usable garden spaces, turning community liabilities into assets. The gardens are often started through existing community networks and once created, continue to strengthen social ties.20,22,57 Studies of the social dynamics of community gardens illustrate the relationships between urban greening and community building.
Thomas Jefferson promoted an agrarian vision of American society in which people worked together to grow food for sustenance and commerce. But in 1920, the U.S. Census revealed that, for the first time, more Americans lived in urban than rural settings.58 Urbanization brought new approaches to agriculture.59 During World Wars I and II and the Great Depression, victory gardens and relief gardens were established to ease the demand for food. Modern community gardens emerged in urban areas in the 1960s and 1970s, when urban areas began to decline, sparking interest in creating more green spaces.Vacant lots that had become incubators for crime were transformed into vegetable plots, sitting areas, and play areas.59,60
While the primary function of community gardens is to grow food, community gardens also serve as a place for people to get together and interact.59,62,63 Social and cultural events are often held in community gardens. Celebrations held there include weddings, birthday parties, religious events, and neighborhood block parties and fairs. In addition, gardeners view these spaces as informal gathering spaces. One gardener in a New York study remarked that community gardens are places where people “develop friendship, learn to share and help other people, exchange plants, [and] help each other.”59
As people express their mutual values within garden spaces, relationships are created and strengthened among different groups of people.59 Immigrant communities, such as Puerto Ricans in New York City, have strengthened community ties through a network of community gardens. Gardens can also serve as melting pots for mixed communities. An example is the Garden of Happiness in the Bronx, New York, where African-American and Dominican managers welcomed new Mexican immigrants.
Community gardens benefit a community by enhancing relationships among people, increasing community pride, and sometimes serving as a launching point for broader community improvements.65 Within gardens, adults may mentor children, teaching them about horticulture and how to work together as a community to make improvements.66 One study of community gardening and beautification projects found perceptions of increased social capital amongst community members as people felt more connected with their neighbors and more able to depend on those connections.67 In Philadelphia, garden participants were more likely than a control group to consider their neighbors as friendly, a precursor for building social capital.68
Gardens can be an important catalyst for addressing community issues, facilitating community organizing and empowerment, thus increasing community capacity.64,69 In a study of community organizing, one garden participant stated: “the process of organizing this garden in the community, it helps people, it helps us to organize other programs that will . . . help us encourage each other.”70 A survey of 63 New York State garden programs found that gardens in low-income neighborhoods were highly likely to lead to other social and neighborhood issues being addressed.69
Project support was provided by the national Urban and Community Forestry program of the USDA Forest Service, State and Private Forestry, and the University of Washington.
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