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Milton FriesenA complex, invisible but powerful web of relations profoundly shape us from individual to city levels. But how do we foster these relations?

Organizations like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) are helping to answer the question, to the betterment of us all.

My exposure to the FCM began in 2001 as a newly elected municipal councillor in Vegreville, Alta. The physical infrastructure advocacy that FCM has built a solid reputation on was quickly apparent. Fast forward to today and the FCM’s Sustainable Communities Conference, where I was a workshop moderator.

What was remarkable was that the capacity-plus workshop audience wasn’t there to talk about physical infrastructure or ways to generate new revenues — they were there to talk about the role that human connections in our communities play in solving some of our most pressing problems.

The session was called Turning Social Capital into Sustainability Success. It featured panelists who are leaders in attending to the relations that shape us.

Although urban planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber gave us a good look at the concept of “wicked problems” in their treatise in 1975, we’ve been slow to catch on. Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna reminded us during her address that “no one on their own can address climate change” and a quick perusal of her mandate letter as a member of the federal cabinet reflects a deeply relational dynamic that is sobering in its challenges and imaginative in its feasibility. Without a robust social infrastructure, Canada’s goals will not be met, however well-meaning we may be.

That’s what made this workshop linking social capital and sustainability unique. It was clear from presenters and participants alike that it is very difficult to bring about change when the social fabric is thin or doesn’t exist.

When we don’t have sufficient trust or connection as individuals or organizations, we become preoccupied with who (other than us) is responsible for our various messes. If you are a municipality, it’s the province or the federal government. If you’re a business owner, it’s all of government. If you’re a citizen, it’s business and government, and so on. We need greater clarity on responsibility and with it, more effective ways of identifying if we have the resources to deliver what we’ve been asked to shoulder. Without that, frustration will increase as the dreams of the future get bigger.

Elected municipal officials and administrators identified how critical community groups of all kinds are in facilitating democratic process. In many cases, strong community groups are more trusted than local officials, given their service to people at immediate, neighbourhood levels. Every municipality has a local, street-level dynamic. What happens at those levels is vital, even for global issues, because democratic governments at all levels need a civil society that can enable their governing.

One participant asked: what happens if the social capital isn’t present or is very thinned out? A local government can’t just “increase social fabric by 5.9 percent this year” in the same way that a water main project can be undertaken to shore up physical infrastructure. We need to spend more time and energy in answering that insightful question and its flipside: how do we protect, nurture and grow the social fabric of our communities where it already exists?

The workshop presenters provided some answers:

  • we need spaces designed for more than one mode of transportation
  • we need spaces designed for human-scale interaction that includes investment in programming and social use
  • we need to identify barriers to social connectivity and remove them (e.g. filling out a stack of paperwork to host a simple block party)
  • we need faith communities that are generators of public good in our neighbourhoods.

Closing keynote speaker Charles Montgomery makes it clear that sociable spaces, strategies and our happiness are clearly related. Is there a role for happiness (as a kind of proxy for well-being) in approaching our collective challenges? Could it be more effective than grim determination? It must surely be better than uncaring resignation.

While these are clearly valuable conversations to have at a conference dedicated to communities and sustainability, the deeper gains will be found in expanding these conversations where they are already well underway and carrying them to other places in government, business and our communities, where they are desperately needed.

Milton Friesen is the program director of Social Cities at Cardus, a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture.

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