The study affirms the importance of individual and neighborhood rates of participation in neighborhood activities for the development of different types of social capital.
Knowing how to generate social capital may be especially valuable for distressed urban neighborhoods, such as where this study was conducted, as they are more likely to have the needs of the community inadequately met and/or to experience neighborhood problems, such as crime and disorder.
Having a household member participate in community gardening/beautification and/or neighborhood meetings were associated with more positive perceptions of bonding social capital, linking social capital, and the existence of positive neighborhood norms and values.
Household participation in either gardening/beautification or in neighborhood meetings had generally the same level of association with perceptions of social capital, but participating in both types of neighborhood activities was a stronger predictor of bonding social capital, linking social capital, and feeling responsible for the neighborhood.
Household participation measures had stronger associations with perceptions of social capital than did neighborhood-level participation measures. For members of households that were involved in one or more of these activities, in addition to the effect of their own household participation, having higher levels of participation in neighborhood activities were associated with their perceptions of linking social capital, feeling responsibility for and satisfaction with their neighborhood, and knowing their neighbors.
For people from uninvolved households, only having more people attending neighborhood meetings (or both meetings and gardening) was associated with higher perceptions of linking social capital and neighborhood influence.
Although there are some variations with specific social capital constructs assessed, previous research supports our findings of an increase in social interactions due to community gardening (Glover, 2004, 2005; Saldivar-Tanaka, 2004; Schmelzkopf, 1996; Wakefield et al., 2007) and participation in neighborhood organizations, or community visioning or construction projects (Arai & Pedlar, 1997; Brisson & Usher, 2005; Ohmer & Beck, 2006; Semenza et al., 2007; Unger &Wandersman, 1982, 1983).
In addition, there is research linking ‘‘green common spaces’’ with social capital constructs; the presence of vegetation in urban residential neighborhoods has been shown to increase the use of outdoor public spaces by community members when compared to more barren locales (Coley, Kuo, & Sullivan, 1997; Kuo, Bacaicoa, & Sullivan, 1998; Taylor, Wiley, & Kuo, 1998). Kuo, Sullivan, and Coley (1998) found that higher levels of common space vegetation were closely associated with more social ties with neighbors, and this relationship was mediated by the use of green space.
There are several implications that can be drawn from this research. First, it speaks to the current debate on the communitarian and network views of social capital. Social interactions, networks, norms, values, and beliefs are characteristics of individuals and only become characteristics of neighborhoods when enough residents share the same perceptions of the social structure.
‘‘Stocks’’ of social capital do vary between neighborhoods, but even among high social capital neighborhoods, there will likely not be uniformity among neighbors as to how well they know their neighbors and ascribe to common values and beliefs.
Even if social capital is only operating at neighborhood or community levels, as the communitarian view proposes, most studies utilize individual-level responses to social capital questions aggregated at a neighborhood, state, or another community level. Therefore, it is important to investigate what influences individual-level social capital even within the communitarian context. As Gatrell, Popay, and Thomas (2004) have noted, ‘‘mere co-location in geographical space does not mean that individuals have near-identical stocks of social and material capital’’.
Our study demonstrated that levels of participation in neighborhood activities can at least partially explain differences in social capital perceptions found among neighbors residing within the same neighborhood.
The findings of this study also support the hypothesis that within neighborhoods in distressed cities, household experiences and networks are more important at influencing residents’ perceptions of social capital than what their neighbors are doing.
Another benefit of this study was the diversity of social capital measures available in our survey, which enabled us to unpack the various constructs that have been linked to social capital and investigate them separately. Current definitions of social capital make a distinction between bonding, bridging, and linking social capital (Szreter & Woolcock, 2004).
We believe that researchers should investigate neighborhood norms and values separately as well. Differential measurement of these broad categories, as well as indicators within each category, will enable further development of the concept of social capital and how it may be differentially generated in different contexts and among different people.
Finally, designers of community garden interventions intended to improve neighborhood social capital should be aware that social capital is likely built neighbor by neighbor through investments that individual residents make in spending time with their neighbors and improving their neighborhood.
As this study shows, to influence many forms of social capital, the best approach may be to encourage neighbors to create and participate in neighborhood organizations in addition to gardening, beautification, and other neighborhood activities.
The percentage of residents participating in a neighborhood meeting is likely a proxy for the level of functioning of the neighborhood organization, and it can be further proposed that a functioning neighborhood organization may be more likely to have spill-over effects on nonparticipants.
Many block clubs in Flint, for example, collect contact information for every block resident, distribute flyers announcing meetings and events to every house in the neighborhood, and hold well-attended summer block parties that people who do not participate in meetings attend (Reischl, Alaimo, & Hutchison, 2002).
These may be ways that nonparticipating residents become engaged. Neighborhood community gardens that do not have the support of a neighborhood organization may enhance their impact on the neighborhood by forming a block club or taking the time to engage neighbors in these types of activities.
There are several limitations to this study. The study occurred in one community (Flint, MI), and the results may not generalize to other communities. The data were collected by randomly calling households, which may not adequately represent the population of interest.
Research on survey response rates has noted a steady decline in response rates for telephone surveys since the mid-1970s (Curtin, Presser, & Singer, 2005) due to increasing refusal rates and increasing numbers of non-contacts (i.e., ‘‘no answer’’ calls). Also, there is growing concern that more people (especially younger adults) are using cell phones exclusively, eliminating them from the sampling frame for telephone surveys using landline numbers (Tucker, Brick, & Meekins, 2007).
This study attempted to correct potential sample bias by weighting the data to account for nonresponse, unequal selection probability, and age and gender differences, but this is not a perfect correction. The survey also relied on self-reports of key psychosocial constructs.
All constructs were assessed using single-item measures or measures with only two to four items. The internal consistency indices were adequate but did not indicate high rates of reliability. The appropriate cautions should be used when interpreting the final results.
Community development projects intended to promote the health benefits associated with social capital necessitate an understanding of how social interactions, relationships, values, and norms are developed and propagated at the neighborhood level.
This research suggests that organizing neighborhoods for gardening and beautification can improve perceptions of social capital among those who participate and that more people attending neighborhood meetings within a neighborhood improve the perceptions of linking social capital even among those who do not participate.
For community garden and neighborhood beautification organizers, the implications of this may be that community gardening and beautification projects may have the most impact on social capital and related health outcomes when supported by an organizational structure such as a block club or neighborhood organization; attention to broad organizing of the neighborhood may be as valuable as creating beautiful, productive spaces.
Source: Alaimo, K., Reischl, T. M., & Allen, J. O. (2010). Community gardening, neighborhood meetings, and social capital. Journal of community psychology, 38(4), 497-514.
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