Infrastructure must encourage social capacity

Canada must rebuild personal connections for social infrastructure.

by Milton Friesen

HAMILTON, ON/ Troy Media/ – The Federation of Canadian Municipalities will no doubt attract significant media interest at its upcoming annual conference with calls for great physical infrastructure spending.

Indeed, even before it kicks off its gathering in Edmonton from June 5 to 8, the FCM has already won well-deserved attention for a report showing Canada is $123 billion behind on physical infrastructure, and lagging by a further $2 billion annually.

New federal investments of $75 billion over 10 years for Canadian infrastructure will help, but even that can’t catch us up completely. The FCM is right to raise concern about this chronic infrastructure shortfall, which generally captures our awareness only if a large chunk of a local bridge plunges into a river or a broken water main snarls commuter traffic. We need these things so that we can live the lives we do, yet we forget and neglect them until trouble reminds us they’re essential.

Yet there is another kind of essential infrastructure that all too often has even lower visibility: social infrastructure.

The complex networks of relationships, groups, organizations, and institutions that make up the deep operating system of our common lives can also be taken for granted. Failing to pay attention to our social infrastructure yields a result similar to neglect of bridges and roads. It can decline, eroding until a significant failure jars our inattention. One of the signs that we may be underinvesting in the ties that have long held our communities together is the increasing rate of social isolation of which we are only slowly becoming aware.

Socially and economically marginalized people have long known the feeling of vulnerability that comes with being disconnected from the advantages that others unthinkingly enjoy. But cities such as Vancouver have begun to notice that social isolation affects all economic and social strata: privilege does not necessarily equal social well-being. Neither does digital connectedness. A Vancouver study revealed unexpected levels of social isolation and civic disengagement among residents in their mid-20s to mid-30s.

Rather than being just another lifestyle choice, feeling disconnected from other people for prolonged periods of time can lead to poor health and premature death at rates comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or suffering from heart disease. If health budgets are already challenging to meet, we can expect that a failure to attend to human connectedness in our cities will increase the demand on those services. Faltering social infrastructure will be costly.

Many factors influence social connectedness. One is the design of our communities – the space where social and physical infrastructure meet. Some arrangements of housing, businesses, schools, roads and buildings are socially productive, supporting the informal interactions of individuals, families, groups and organizations. Some are not. While we may not know why, we are naturally drawn to places that support such interactions – plazas, cafes, streets with little shops, places to sit, hang out, and watch each other.

A significant question we must attend to is how our physical infrastructure builds or erodes social capacity. What do we know about the interaction of physical and social infrastructure that can guide us toward building new infrastructure that is more socially generative than what we currently have? What have we built that depletes or fights against social capacity? Perhaps we might re-think whether it can be retrofitted to yield a higher social return rather than just fixing up what hasn’t given us what we need.

Milton Friesen is the program director of the Social Cities project of the think tank Cardus. www.troymedia.com

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