Enabling Social Capital Development: An Examination of the Festival of Neighborhoods in Kitchener, Ontario
Keywords:Social capital development, neighborhood festivals, community participation.
AbstractAt present, there is a deep concern among scholars and policymakers of an alleged decline in social capital within contemporary society. Social capital refers to the relational resources embedded within social networks. These resources are integral to the social fabric that gives substance to a healthy community. Illustrative of the seriousness with which policymakers have viewed the decline of social capital, all levels of government, both domestically and internationally, have sought to address this issue. However, at present, most government initiatives have concentrated more on measuring and monitoring social capital than on actually developing it. With this in mind, there is a documented need for research to examine and evaluate successful programs that have been implemented to facilitate the creation of social capital.The purpose of this paper was to examine how a program called the Festival of Neighborhoods (FON) in the City of Kitchener, Ontario, facilitates the creation of social capital. The FON encourages local citizens to organize and enter neighborhood events (e.g., picnics, street parties, barbecues) in a random draw for a $10,000 community improvement grant. The explicit intent behind this initiative is to encourage neighbors to (re)build relationships that will strengthen the social networks within their neighborhoods. The researchers examined the FON and its attempt to build social capital by interviewing members of the FON organizing committee and representatives from the City of Kitchener who were involved with the initiative.Two major themes were identified from the data collected. The first theme, context, recognized the importance of leisure as a rationale and incentive to encourage neighbors to come together. On the one hand, the festivals that were organized provided events that brought people together (socializing), and in so doing, attempted to strengthen relationships and a sense of solidarity among participants. On the other hand, the improvement grant generated spin-off effects in terms of motivating people toward meaningful collective action (mobilizing), while building vertical relationships between the City and the neighborhood groups. The second theme, organizational structure, acknowledged the flexibility and facilitative philosophy that the organizing committee brought to the FON. That is, the particular structure that we have identified as flexible and facilitative was purposefully designed by the FON to foster citizen involvement and participation.The findings in this study suggest that public leisure agencies can have an important impact on the development of social capital by facilitating the development of horizontal and vertical relationships. With the recognition that people are unlikely to come together without a purpose, leisure becomes a powerful incentive and tool in attracting people and encouraging them to build relationships. In particular, a casual leisure event, like a festival, can give neighbors a reason to socialize, and a project-based leisure activity, like the planning involved with determining how to use a $10,000 improvement grant, can give neighbors a reason to mobilize. Based on the success of the FON, we recommend that public agencies consider the following guidelines if they wish to address social capital development as a policy commitment: (1) Have a common purpose (such as leisure) for people to gather around, (2) focus on the people and the development of relationships, (3) recognize people’s efforts and successes, (4) be a facilitator, (5) be flexible, and (6) be responsive.
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