Public Spaces and Social Capital Build Democracy

By: Shamil Ibragimov

Photo Credit: Daniel H. Tong on


Why are public spaces essential for democracy and open society and why it is so important to preserve it?  Let me start by referring to the work of Robert Putnam.

Robert Putnam is a political scientist at Harvard University who for 20 years was engaged in a detective story. He was concerned with quite an obscure topic: the character, quality, and performance of local government in Italy, specifically the effectiveness of Italian regional governments. He wanted to answer one very simple question: Why do some governments work better than others?

In the 1970s, Italians created an entirely new set of regional governments. They all had the same powers and looked essentially identical. They all had substantial resources. But the soil they were planted in was different: some regions were quite backward, some were Catholic and some were controlled by Communists. What happened to these genetically identical institutions as they developed in these different soils?

Putnam and his colleagues studied the performance of these governments: administrative efficiency; the number of day-care centers or irrigation projects they produced; their responsiveness to citizen inquiries. And they discovered that some regional governments were and are very efficient and effective and others were and are clear disasters – corrupt, inefficient.

So why do some governments work better than others? What were the secret ingredients, the secret elements of the soil?

They had lots of ideas. Maybe it was money; more economically advanced and thus could afford better governments.  Maybe it was education.  Maybe it was related to the political party system.  They had many hypotheses, many possible explanations.

But when they did the analysis, they were surprised to learn the best predictors of government performance – choral societies and football clubs!  Reading societies and hiking clubs, folklore dancing associations and other community clubs.  Some communities had dense networks of civic engagement. People were connected with one another and with their governments. It wasn’t simply that they were more likely to vote in regions with high-performance governments, but that they were more connected horizontally with one another – multiple face-to-face relations – in a dense fabric of civic life.

A norm of reciprocity had evolved in these regions, the type of reciprocity that makes a community work, and makes governments work more effectively and efficiently. These regions had this dense civic fabric, this tradition, this habit of connecting with one’s neighbours and with community institutions.  These regions were also wealthier and more economically advanced.

Now for a long time, Putnam and his colleagues thought that it was wealth that produced choral societies. They thought that people in economically advanced, more affluent places could afford to take the time to become engaged in community affairs, while the poor peasants did not have much opportunity to join a choral society.

They had it exactly backward. It was not wealth that had produced choral societies; it was, at least in the Italian case, the choral societies that produced wealth.  That is, two identical regions one hundred years ago were equally backward, but one happened to have a tradition of civic engagement and it became wealthier and wealthier. They discovered to their amazement that this pattern of civic connectedness was a crucial ingredient not only in explaining why some institutions work more effectively and efficiently than others, but also, in explaining levels of economic well-being.

Three other concepts are important.

The first is civil society. This refers to a situation where between the individual and the state stands a network of secondary that are autonomous from the state, that is that is governed by the rule of law that recognizes the integrity of social institutions independent of it, such as churches, mosks, community football clubs and cultural institutions. Authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, are intolerant of these independent social institutions and either ban then or re-shape them into associations controlled by the state and its organs.

The second is civic community. This is a democracy in which individuals not only actively participate in voluntary intermediate institutions but also that these organisations can actually influence the state. A key indicator of a civic community is the vibrancy of associational life. Key here is cooperation in face-to-face horizontally ordered groups (sports clubs, cultural association) that creates social capital that can then be used to influence public affairs.  People who learn how to work together have the capacity and the networks to represent their views and voice demands upon public officials. Participation in civic organisations inculcates skills of cooperation and a sense of shared responsibility for collective endeavors. These effects do not require that the manifest purpose of the association be political. Taking part in a choral society or a bird watching club can teach self-discipline and an appreciation for the joys of successful collaboration. These are skills and attitudes that are critically important in the civil realm.

Thirdly, Putnam also distinguishes bonding social capital and bridging social capital. The former involves the engagement with the similar stratum of people (same ethnicity, age, profession, religion, and etc) and can, in turn, reinforce the existing beliefs and prejudices. Conversely, the latter notion assumes the engagement with the different stratum of people and thus can contribute more to the promotion of trust and tolerance. Although the relationships formed by bonding social capital may not facilitate collective action, bonding social capital is still a necessary precursor for the development of bridging social capital.

After Putnam, there is a growing body of evidence that indicates that the size and density of social networks and the nature of interpersonal relations significantly affect the efficiency of social, economic and political institutions.

Why do some governments work efficiently, effectively and others do not?  The key ingredient is social capital, and as Putnam would say, “choral societies” and civic associations.

Those who live and are active in post-Soviet countries and probably in most of the developing countries could very well argue that building social capital as a strategy for improving government institutions and economic performance is not a feasible approach since it will take an inordinate amount of time.  The rich networks of communal association that existed before Italy’s regional government reforms in the 1970s and that produced such different outcomes had been around for a century or more. We cannot wait decades for associational life to mature. This is a serious point and deserves consideration.

It is quite important to understand the devastating legacy of Soviet rule in this respect. The USSR was an authoritarian state with very specific characteristics that are not usually found in other authoritarian regimes. A key feature of Soviet society was the extreme degree of atomization. The repressive apparatus of the state penetrated into the pores of society. At issue was not simply to suppress political opposition, political and human rights – most authoritarian states do this. The Soviet apparatuses of repression they suppressed unmediated human and group interaction no matter what its content. Such activity was considered a threat per se regardless of the content of the activity.  Under that regime, the most innocent initiative to form a dance group or a stamp collectors club would be squashed. All significant human and group activity had to be mediated and controlled by the state. For students to form an alpine club they would have to seek permission of the local Komsomol (Young Communist’s League) permission, and if approved that club would become absorbed into its system.

An atomized population does not have the opportunity to learn the benefits and habits of group endeavor and is locked in its relationships with its family and a narrow circle of closest friends. This is a terrible scar left on contemporary Kyrgyzstani society from the Soviet period.

People are prepared to invest in ‘significant others’, relatives that are near and dear, not in others that are more distant.  But social capital is all about people spending their resources (among them time) on more distant others as well. It is about cultivating trust, norms of reciprocity and engagement in networks. This lack of social capital does really matter. Social capital has been shown to improve economic performance, affecting individual’s earnings and subjective well-being. Its role in health is important. It is also the foundation on which good institutions can develop.

Can the development of social capital be accelerated through public spaces development?  It certainly can if programs are designed with this intention in mind.

Let’s consider the following simple case. You can fight crime in a neighborhood in one of two ways:  you can increase by 10 percent the number of policemen, or you can increase by 10 percent the number of people who know each other’s first names and thus watch out for each other. The latter that builds social capital has been shown to be a more lasting and cost-effective crime-fighting strategy.

Social capital does not require centuries to be built-up.  It can be increased in a short period of time. But for this to happen social capital has to be integrated into public policies that design interventions with this in mind. Social capital’s role in improving the quality of life, economic performance and the effectiveness of institutions of government is increasingly recognized, and a variety of approaches for policies to create and sustain social capital are available.

Building associational life with a rich texture of human interaction is critically important in a country such as Kyrgyzstan with its legacy of atomization. The lesson from Putnam’s work is that this associational life does not have to be structured around political goals for it to have a deep impact on political life. In this context perhaps the time has come to pay attention to seemingly humble but deeply more organic things – building public spaces, supporting choirs, football clubs and dance groups, and in a short period of time, we may find an improvement in the country’s civic life.