They say that the Inuit have 50 words to describe snow.
I am longing for a similar richness in how we talk about “community,” a word that is thrown around so loosely that it is in danger of losing its meaning.
For a more expansive view of community, we can look to the language surrounding the concept of “social capital” or “social trust.”
Social capital is typically defined as the reciprocal bonds of trust between people. There is a rich academic discourse that has conceptualized a diversity of social capital types, such as Thick vs. Thin, Formal vs. Informal, Bridging vs. Bonding, etc.
I find that the bridging vs. bonding distinction is most helpful for better understanding “community” and its relationship to broader social trends.
Bonding social capital is the inward-oriented social trust that supports connections and unity within an existing “in-group.” For example, think about who might make a house-visit with a pot of soup when you are sick. That’s bonding social capital.
However, history has shown that societies composed only of bonding social capital become segregated into hostile tribal groups.
On the other hand, bridging social capital is the type of social trust that spans networks and affinity groups. It brings together people who are unlike one another.
Bridging social capital is often manifested in place-based communities and institutions, like our neighborhood “third-places” or community events where people of different backgrounds interact with each other. These relationships are also sometimes called “weak ties,” a term that belies their importance.
Strong societies have a social fabric composed of a rich network of bridging social capital.
Bridging social capital is the vehicle that allows us to value our differences and turn them into strengths. It is the foundation for a tolerant and pluralistic democracy.
The core of our current national challenges can be traced back to the rise of forces that support only bonding capital, and the decline of institutions that cultivate bridging capital.
For example, it has been well documented how social media and internet search algorithms create “filter bubbles limiting our exposure to different viewpoints and people. These bubbles support our existing biases and interests, and strengthen our connections to others with similar interests.
America has also witnessed a corresponding gradual decline in the institutions that cultivate Bridging Social Capital. As notably documented in the seminal book “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam, over the last several decades there have been dramatic declines in almost every indicator of civic and social engagement. Examples include involvement in local politics, churches, labor unions, fraternal organizations, entertaining friends at home, working on community projects, giving blood, and many more.
The result is that we’ve become more tribal, or in other words, we have an excess of bonding capital and a deficit of bridging social capital.
Sadly, the gears of democracy just simply won’t work unless they are connected and reinforced with the ties of bridging social capital. We can see it today manifesting in polarized political discourse, anti-immigration sentiments, and more.
A prosperous path forward for America in reality a quest for the most effective and efficient methods for cultivating bridging social capital.
Let’s dream for a moment: What would a “moon-shot” of bridging social capital creation look like?
Regular readers will know my bias: Bottom-up community-driven placemaking projects are veritable money-trees of bridging social capital. And the neighborhood – where many different types of people live close to each other – is the unit of change.
As a landscape architect whose practice supports community-driven placemaking efforts, I have witnessed again and again placemaking’s efficacy to generate bridging social capital. I have seen diverse neighbors who never knew each other form lasting bonds and take ownership over the places where they live. I have seen the emergence of new definitions of “us” that transcend political or tribal boundaries.
We may call that building “community,” but it is really people building their own bridges—between themselves, and towards a more inclusive, prosperous, and participatory future.