Julia Unwin: Why We Need To Build Social Capital In Cities

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This is a lecture given by Julia Unwin at the Human Cities Institute’s sixth Annual Lecture in Leeds, UK. It epitomizes the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda Pollyannish view of city living in the future. This sentiment is seen globally in identical format. ⁃ TN Editor

If growth is to be genuinely inclusive then we need to tackle some of our current obstacles to building strong social capital, says Julia Unwin.

Why cities matter

Cities are central to the development of our world. By 2030, urban areas are expected to house 60% of the world’s population and generate up to 80% of global economic growth. Over the last 50 years, the percentage of people living in cities has increased from 34% to 54% and is believed to rise up to 66% by 2050, according to a report published in 2014 by the UN.

In the UK 61% of growth is generated by city regions. Nearly half the UK population live within the largest 15 metropolitan centres and, if the UK’s top 15 metropolitan centres were to realise their potential, it is estimated they would generate an additional £79bn growth.

Cities are powerful and dynamic engines of growth. They are growing in importance and impact. They can be the sources of innovation and creativity, bringing people together in new and unexpected ways and spawning the cultural quarters, the digital invention, the start-ups and connections that enable modern growth. They can be places where independence flourishes, where identity can be reinvented, where people can flourish and grow. Our very recent history has seen the cultural renaissance of Birmingham, the regeneration of central Bristol, the retail revolution of Leeds. It has witnessed the flowering of Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast, and the impact of the City of Culture in Hull and in Derry.

Across the UK cities were physically remodelled in the 1990s and early part of this century. They were bashed and damaged by the global financial crisis of 2008, and now they enjoy (if that is the right word) the prospect of changes to the administrative, legislative and political architecture.

Cities good and bad

In short, cities can be the place we become our best selves, the place where our human ingenuity and our capacity to support each other flourishes.

They can be places of sanctuary, providing warmth and a place for new and different identities to flourish. Look at the ways in which some cities have absorbed, welcomed and celebrated the arrival of immigrants with distinctive cultures, cuisines and capabilities. Look at the confidence and security of the ‘gay quarters’ of the 1990s, providing safety and support, and so often also supporting creativity and cultural reinvention. Cities can be places where we can be ourselves, liberated from some of the more stultifying aspects of small town life, and even, occasionally, our own families.

But cities can also be places of isolation, of poverty, and of misery. They can become places where innovation and creativity are driven out. Where the bonds of social engagement are attenuated and where solidarity is fatally eroded. They can become places where poverty is locked in. Places where progression and development is prohibited. Places where people without the support of family find alternative social networks impossible to access. Places which, while not actively hostile to the incomer, afford them so little welcome that in effect they remain for ever the stranger.

Why social capital matters to cities

It is the depth and the breadth of social capital in cities that distinguishes the creative, lively, bonded city, from the miserable dystopia I have painted. Cities where everyone is too busy to interact breed loneliness and despair. Cities where automation has made every interaction a soulless one, driving out human contact in the interests of speed and efficiency.  Cities where the more vulnerable are shunned and ignored are cities of fear, not to mention huge potential costs. And cities where one of the very many people in the early stages of dementia receive no neighbourly support, and can only turn to A&E and the police, are cities that will be expensive to run.

Cities need the skills and assets of all their citizens. If people with money desert the city centre because of violence and danger, those centres will never thrive. If people as they reach retirement age leave the cities in which they worked, the city loses wisdom, and civic leadership. If cities are unaffordable for young people they lose economic potential. And if the nature of the return to growth simply locks poverty into particular areas, those cities will never become the engines of sustained growth and prosperity that a poverty-free UK demands.

Social capital is not an optional extra for a city. It is as fundamental as the financial capital and the skills base of any successful city.

The language of cities and the language of social capital

When we talk about cities we talk about the physical infrastructure, we talk about inward investment, skills matrices and the role of powerful institutions. When we talk about social capital we talk about kindness and generosity. We talk about families and neighbours. We talk about affinity and belonging, of liveability and about happiness and love. When we talk about cites we use the skills of economics and of physical planning. When we talk about social capital we learn from neuroscience and from behavioural economics. As so often these days I end up looking at Canada and the pioneering work of Charles Montgomery on what makes people happy, and therefore makes their cities successful.

It’s high time we talked about these things together.

What do we mean by social capital?

I identify three layers of social capital that are as essential in big cities as they are in tiny villages.

First there is the largely unexplored world of everyday kindness which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation examined in a neighbourhood in Glasgow. Community participants were asked to list the everyday, often unacknowledged favours, bits of help and mutual help. Rather beautifully one described it as ‘spraying water on a spider’s web’ and some were amazed both at the strength of this apparently fragile web, but also its breadth and reach. Equally, others noted quite how thin their webs of support were, and how desperately isolated they were. This essentially reciprocal and vital layer of social capital needs nurture and care. It does not happen by accident and there are steps we can take to preserve and grow, just as surely as we can destroy.

We know that neighbourhood responses to poverty always start at this level. It is the shared fiver that circulates in so many families and social groups, the short term mini loans. It is the offers to babysit and the introduction to possible job starts, the offer of a sofa for a teenager that stops her from becoming homeless. Word of mouth and social networks are, and always have been, the front line defence against poverty.

The second layer involves the many organisations, groups, associations and businesses which contributed to help happening in a place – what sits between the very informal, person-to-person helping relationships and formal help and care.

The middle layer has an important role to play in creating the conditions for ‘ordinary kindness’, simply by encouraging social interaction. Groups, organisations and associations draw people together through shared interest or purpose; and they provide spaces within which interaction can happen. As such, they serve as junction boxes, connecting diverse strands of community and social networks. These networks and groups are worth fostering.

While there may be an apparent fit between the community sector and notions of everyday help and support, ‘ordinary kindnesses’ are evident in corporate or commercial settings too – whether a supermarket, café or corner shop. For example, in one area of Glasgow, the local supermarket was a place where interactions of kindness and help happened. In another area it was the local café that served as a meeting point and a source of help for local parents with children.

It is often when individuals transcend their formal or scripted roles that there is the greatest scope for small acts and relationships of help and support to emerge.

The third layer is the institutions that govern, as well as serve, the city, the neighbourhood. They are the ones that frequently absorb the available resource and talent. The anchor institutions, the housing associations, the local authority, the hospital, the university, and the funded voluntary organisation. How much do these bodies foster social capital? Are they providing services to customers, or are they building the strength and resilience of the communities they exist to serve?

Perhaps even more crucially, how much are these institutions and economic systems enabling the pre-conditions for strong social capital?

The pre-conditions for strong social capital

Social capital is not formed in a vacuum. What happens is shaped by our external environment, and what is happening around us is different from that faced by previous generations of city leaders.

Social Capital is in real peril. Our labour market has changed, and changed fundamentally. At the bottom end of the labour market our current economy produces part time, insecure and poorly paid work. People doing multiple jobs just to get by is becoming the norm, and increasingly the much vaunted ‘gig economy’ is actually producing a group of people who, while technically self-employed, seem to me to have many of the working conditions of the 19th century casual labourer.

At the bottom end of the labour market people lead poor and insecure lives, faced with higher costs and constantly managing debt. Work is undoubtedly for many of us the best route out of poverty. If the work is insecure, and has no progression (and four out of five people starting in low paid work are still low paid 10 years later) it does not provide a secure route.

People in poverty are also leading extremely crowded lives. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation makes it clear that the only possibility of escaping poverty for a couple with two children is for the family to at least have 1.6 incomes. This leaves precious little time for the creation of social capital – the support for neighbours and family, the engagement with others that is one element of the vital fuel for the growth of social capital.

The second element of this social capital fuel is security. There is good and compelling evidence, if we didn’t already know it from the personal experience of each of us, that a secure home is the necessary foundation for a route out of poverty, the best way of building a life, raising a family, and contributing to your neighbourhood. Our modern housing market increasingly lacks security. Life on a six month tenancy in the private rented sector or life on a short-term conditional tenancy in the social sector does not create the pre-conditions for contributing to strong secure neighbourhoods.

I have rarely been to a regeneration scheme and not encountered the (usually very angry) grandmother whose drive, persistence and commitment to improving the area has forced landlords, local authorities and investors to change. Home owners threatened by repossession, or playing the game of riding the current turbo charged housing market, are equally unlikely to develop those deep and sustained roots that are essential for social capital. Time, security – a sense of sufficiency – these are vital elements. But they are not the only ones.

Public services can support the formation of social capital, and they can just as readily destroy it. Evidence from across the UK makes it clear that there is no linear relationship between the support given by the state and other institutional providers. But at a time of huge reductions in local expenditure:

  • What we know is that very hard pressed communities are damaged by the current erosion of the basics of public service to communities – if you are struggling to survive the capacity to support others is jeopardised.
  • We know from Joseph Rowntree Foundation funded research that some of the programme of austerity has hit the poorest places in the UK hardest, and we also know that improved targeting of services – inevitable when resources are tight – will leave many needs unmet.
  • And we know that internationally as research from CIVICUS shows us the places for civic life are disappearing, and in this country, and in this city, the threats to libraries, cultural venues, and other places where people can meet, threaten and undermine participation and engagement.

Our interest in growing social capital for the good of our cities must take into account these real threats – the insecurity, shortage of time, and pressures on public finance.

Social capital in cities – a historic view

A bit of history about what we know of social capital in cities.

It was the Industrial Revolution that transformed the notion of a UK city. People moved from lives of grinding poverty to the new industrialised jobs of the 19th century; swapping back-breaking, poorly rewarded work on the land for back-breaking poorly rewarded work in the mills and factories of the rapidly transformed England. This created opportunity, but also massive challenge. Living lives of unimaginable squalor, for the first time free from the constraints of family, village and church life, the experience of people in the newly industrialised cities of the UK has been described in vivid and horrific details by George Gissing, etc. What we would now call a moral panic gripped the nation, and commentators, authors and politicians all weighed in – in a way that is all too familiar for those of us who have lived through similar panics. ‘Something must be done’ was the cry.

As ever, observing the actions and not the words pays dividends.

This was the time of the biggest explosion of ‘social capital’ we have probably ever seen in response to this unprecedented upheaval. Churches and chapels sprang up in the heart of the newly populated cities. Girls and Boys Clubs, friendly societies and working men’s clubs were formed. Mutual aid and trade unions began. The pioneering charities like Barnardo’s, the hospital funds and the prison reformers. The new profession of housing management, led by women, created the cornerstones of our current housing association movement and laid the foundations for the council housing of which we should all be so proud. Social work developed as a profession. Workers’ education institutes, reading rooms and political discussion sprang up in the newly crowded, and deeply divided, cities.

Of course this activity contained within it both what is good and what is bad about social capital. Of course some of it was patronising and ill thought through. We read about Mrs Jellaby in Bleak House and cringe. We look at the advice given by the Charities Organisations Society and from our comparatively privileged positon allow ourselves a smug grimace. Of course dreadful things were done in the name of social capital. Children sent to Australia, horrific abuse took place in the laundries of Belfast, extortionate rents were undoubtedly charged for squalid housing, and predatory lending has a long history. But we also see the great strengths of self-organisation and mutual support, the creation of new institutions for different times. The development of networks of support, and the engagement of those with privilege in genuinely, if occasionally misguidedly, seeking to improve lives for their fellow citizens.

As Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation you would not expect me to get this far without talking about the enlightened progressive capitalists of this period and the ways in which Rowntree, Cadbury, Titus Salt and others, worked, making a lot of money, for sure, but also developing approaches to employment practice that still resonate today. Taking responsibility for their workforces and housing people who would otherwise live in the slums of York, Birmingham and Bradford in beautiful, well designed and green environments.

And of course the great civic leaders who built our city halls, improved public health, built and managed vital housing, were born from just this energetic social capital, connecting back through the ballot box to the needs of populations which were changing, and facing new and entirely different problems.

Social capital takes many forms and is never an unequivocal good. But the Industrial Revolution witnessed the way in which the power of financial capital, the demands of human capital combined to generate enormous social capital which still shapes the social architecture and engineering of our big cities today.

Some of the pre-conditions that we now possess would have been beyond the imagination of our nineteenth century predecessors.

First we have the people. Our ageing population is so often described as a ‘burden’. In the calculation of social capital the fact that we will all live longer, hopefully healthier lives, brings wisdom, knowledge and capability to addressing some of our most pressing social problems. Our much more diverse, much better educated population also contains the skills and the abilities to foster real reciprocal, creative and innovative social capital.

And secondly we have the technology. The digital revolution has changed and continues to change so much of what we do, as well as how we do it. Open data, generously shared, is a vital tool for the development of the social networks and connections that create capital. Communication, at the press of a key, enables communities of interest to be formed, enfranchises those without a voice and enables far more of us to engage in a genuinely pluralist debate. Of course there is a darker side – the internet can reinforce loneliness, generate hate and exclude as much as it can enable. But the optimism and drive that transformed this city can harness the power of digital to enable genuine, productive engagement.

In discussing social change we often end up talking about data, its power, and its resilience. We believe as technocrats that clean, well marshalled data can solve everything. But the real data that powers social capital is often messy. It involves a close and detailed understanding of the web of relationships that keeps any neighbourhood alive. We know that it is vitally important for the police and security services to understand in fine detail the operation of community networks and relationships. We accept that the big commercial service providers know more about us than our closest family.  And so those of us concerned with the fostering of social capital need to harness just this data to understand and support the very real networks of mutual support that make this city tick, and make survival possible.

Knowledge – real, informed, current knowledge – is vital to the development of social capital. Interventions that are rooted in how people really live – the ethnography of neighbourhoods – are part of the modern skill set. Social capital comes from within.  Top down announcements of new ways of engaging lack this fine grained knowledge, will be based on anecdote, generalisation and stereotype and have the capacity to destroy real and important social capital.

Social capital today

Today, we face a revolution as profound as anything the nineteenth century pioneers had to contend with. We live in a globalised world in which the pace of change, and the sheer volatility of it all, sometimes simply feels too much. A world in which a decision in Mumbai can change the lives of communities in the West Country overnight. A world in which it is sometimes easier to feel connected to events in the Kashmir than the events in your own neighbourhood. A world in which work is becoming faster, more demanding, and frequently much less secure. A world in which housing is a fragile asset, not a platform on which to build a secure life. A world in which mass movements of people can both enrich and strengthen, but can too often be experienced as threat and division. A world in which the distance between generations can seem overwhelming.

In this world there is more need than ever before for the conscious fostering of social capital. For our cities to thrive and prosper, we need the sort of social capital that enabled people to survive seismic social change in the last centuries.

But we cannot replicate what went before. Modern social capital will need to look and feel different, but it will have all the same qualities of human warmth and reciprocity that we need to live truly prosperous lives in cities.

Modern social capital will need to foster skills for living as well as for working. It will enable and encourage the small acts of kindness that enable us all to survive. But it will also connect people across generations, and across faiths and nationalities. It will be built on the power of relationships, not on transactions.

It will almost certainly be made up more of networks than of organisations. The architecture of the 19th century was mirrored in the settlements and big institutions of that era. A more adaptive and digitally informed social capital may look more like a set of movements than an institution.

It will be more democratic, providing a platform for the dispossessed as much as tending to their needs. It will not be afraid of anger and of division – because social capital is messy, just like social change.

It will bring together surprising friends – cultural organisations, with those who feel furthest away from the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It will cross boundaries, finding support in the corner shop as much as in the funded voluntary organisation. It will not look for permission, but instead will make demands.

But this active, new energetic social capital will be the reason that cities like Birmingham flourish into the next century. It will bring resilience and capability. It will enable innovation and sustainable growth. And it will make sure that our cities are places where people want to live, not dread destinations into which they are forced.

But without a concerted, conscious effort to build inclusive growth, there is a risk that the poorest people and places will be left behind. Our newly developing prosperity risks benefitting the better off at the expense of the poorest people and places. It risks creating cities which are at their heart unsafe and unsustainable because they contain within them places where people are dispossessed, insecure and overlooked. These divided cities will never contribute to a new prosperity.

That is why the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has committed so heavily to understanding both through research and through practice, what good growth can look like in cities. In the Leeds City Region we are working in partnership with local authorities, business and the anchor institutions to identify the steps that can be taken to make that growth truly inclusive. But we are also working with the Young Foundation to understand the details of what is happening in neighbourhoods. Through our support and engagement with the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission we are also doing what we can to make sure that the voices and experience of people experiencing poverty are heard clearly and effectively in the places where decisions are made. And city leaders can use their powers to create a rebalanced economy in which there are far greater opportunities for the people and places previously left behind. The test of city leadership will not be judged only in improved gross value added. It will also be in the extent to which damaging poverty and isolation are conquered.

It is only by this conscious commitment to building social capital in cities that we will see the emergence of a city economy fit for all our citizens in the 21st century.

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And then they will write a report, pat themselves on the back, bank their salary and bonuses, move up a level in their organisation and teach others (nephews, nieces, joining the firm) how to use ‘resilient’ and ‘sustainable’. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a reality where no money means no home, means no food, means no respect, means, probably, early death, we, in Birmingham, look at the world they are describing with our cold little noses pushed up against the glass panel of their ‘legoland’. They sucked the oxygen out of our city and replaced it with a life support… Read more »


tl;dr Stupid idea based on foundational false premise: that cities are the best places for the human being. GOD DID NOT MAKE US AS HIVE-MINDED CRITTERS! Humans ARE NOT a “collective” in any meaningful sense, Julia Unwin. Maybe go learn something that didn’t come from some idiotic cultural Marxist college. No, people need space. People need to be grounded to their reality. If you want “social capital”, then you need to actually have something of value, ie. ‘capital’. Cities do not provide that, nor do most all of the B.S. jobs today offer any sense of work satisfaction or positive… Read more »