Cities and Belonging: Key Lessons for Policymakers Cultivating Social Capital

Cities and Belonging: Key Lessons for Policymakers Cultivating Social Capital

Henriette Ruhrmann

IPPO Cities convened a policy roundtable discussing different approaches for cities to cultivate social capital. The pandemic demonstrated that a strong social fabric is key to resilient communities. The panellists demonstrate across three case studies from London, Liverpool, and Athens showing how measuring and investing in social capital, as well as coordinating and co-creating with volunteers can strengthen urban communities.

Social capital is the glue that holds a community together—or, according to the OECD, personal relationships, the support of one’s social network, civic engagement, as well as trust and cooperative norms. One indicator of strong social capital is the prevalence of volunteering, and in Autumn 2022 the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) published an extensive report on the role of volunteering and strong social capital in communities’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This roundtable built on the findings of the report, and explored the experiences of policymakers at the city level.  The following four key lessons highlight insights from our panellists’ diverse experiences in cultivating social capital across the UK and Europe.

Measuring and understanding the social capital landscape helps target investment

How strong is a city’s social fabric? How much do citizens feel a sense of belonging in their urban community? In which communities is the social fabric less strong? Understanding a city’s unique social capital landscape is key when prioritising policy action and public investment. In order to facilitate this, the Greater London Authority (GLA) has made measuring social integration one of the four parts of the Mayor of London’s Strategy for Social Integration. This saw the GLA create a London-level data set with a statistically significant sample size by undertaking its Survey of Londoners. Overall, the Survey of Londoners found that 80% feel a sense of belonging in London, indicative of a strong social fabric. To create an even more granular database, London is developing its own Civic Strength Index. This tool can shed light on how social capital interacts with other variables such as living costs. A key value of this growing evidence base is that it allows London’s city policymakers to understand how the impact of crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic differs between communities and recommend the targeting of resources appropriately. In this case, the data confirms that minority communities have been affected more severely by the crisis, indicating the need to deploy resources to combat these inequalities.

There are creative ways for cities to invest financially in building social capital

During the COVID-19 pandemic, London boroughs with high prior investment in social capital mobilised more effectively as a community. Understandably, community organisations have a high demand for public funding. Cities continue to evolve approaches to provide funding, leading to a variety of different programmes. Liverpool, for example, established a popular offer with Kindred, a Community Interest Company with public and private funding. Kindred provides repayable but interest-free grants to social organisations as a “patient” source of funding. Similarly, Liverpool’s Cradle to Career Programme providing resources to children and young people is set to be expanded. London’s Propel Fund, a collaborative effort of London’s main funders, streamlines funding procurement for community organisations. Moreover, London offers public community grants ranging from micro-grants to more substantial project grants. Accessible funding is essential to allow financially vulnerable individuals to volunteer and participate; including, for example, paying for volunteers’ travel expenses and subsistence.

Beyond funding, policymakers can provide value by coordinating and connecting community initiatives

Where city budgets are strained, urban policymakers can still invest in the community’s social fabric. For example, Athens operated on a limited public budget in the wake of the financial crisis as governments across Greece adopted austerity measures. Nevertheless, Athens was committed to investing in the city’s social capital and was able to provide in-kind support for community initiatives. The municipality developed the online SynAthina platform to aggregate and map volunteer and community action in Athens. The platform connects related initiatives with each other and identifies best practices. In the UK, cities have developed similar mapping and networking programmes. For example, London’s Lifelines campaign highlights and celebrates volunteer activity across the city. Another program, London Plus, maps vaccine volunteering supply and demand. Similarly, Liverpool’s Kindred community interest company maintains a peer-to-peer volunteer support network. The panellists emphasise that to make the most out of limited funding and help underserved areas, it is key to identify “community champions” who are stepping up in their neighbourhoods and work with them to build new structures.

Citizens are valuable partners in co-creating social capital strategies

Athen’s city government also leveraged limited city resources to successfully co-create new community spaces. The city collaborated with the public to reimagine the Kypseli Public Market, a previously decommissioned building that the city did not have the budget to run. The space now allows community organisations to meet and host community events. Athens’ city policymakers not only provided a new community space with the Kypseli Public Market project, but they also brought the community together in an innovative co-governing process. To envision the building’s future purpose, the municipality collaborated with the community, including squatters previously residing in the building. Together they designed alternative public consultations with room to express ideas in many ways, including artistically. The public engagement process thus became more inclusive as “different communities often speak different languages”. The public generated a total of 470 ideas, some drawn or sung, that shaped the plans for the building’s future. Similarly, Liverpool emphasised community voices in designing the Liverpool Economic Strategy through the Liverpool City Region (LCR) Listens engagement process, which gathered input from over 2,000 citizens.

Participants at the roundtable were Alice Wilcock, Assistant Director for Civil Society and Sport, and Carla Garnelas, Senior Manager for Civil Society and Volunteering, both at the Greater London Authority, Adrian Nolan, Lead Officer for Industrial Strategy at the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, and Amalia Zepou, co-founder of the NPO KOLLEKTIVA and former Vice-Mayor of Athens for Civil Society and Innovation.