Community Organizing In Urban Neighborhoods

This particular intervention has been designed to enhance the urban core of American grid cities which tend to have been planned without any provisions of significant public gathering places. Community organizing in urban neighborhoods can reverse alienation and foster a sense of responsibility that counteracts urban blight; it encourages residents to take initiative against social disorder and physical deterioration (Wilson, 1996). Neighborhood stewardship manifested in physical improvements of the urban environment is a direct consequence of the community organizing capacity; this capacity that can directly be translated into concrete action such as physical improvements to solve local problems (Perkins, et al., 1990). Often residents have little control over the demographic composition of their neighborhood nor over transient populations that may be involved in drug trafficking and crime; however, residents can revitalize their built urban environment. Factors that determine participation in such community efforts to reverse urban decay are sense of social connectedness and sense of community (Crenson, 1978; Florin and Wandersman, 1984; McMillan and Chavis, 1986; Taylor, 1988). Once a more inviting place has been created that is aesthetically pleasing, friendly and safe, such as the public squares described here, social interactions are facilitated which in turn increases the sense of community and participation in community efforts.

Community organizing relies on social capital which refers to the potential and resources inherent in social networks or social cohesion (Putnam, et al., 1995)

and comprises a web of social relationships and their characteristics (Berkman and Glass, 2000). Social network ties have been associated with decreased rates of mortality among adults and increased sense of well-being (Seeman, et al., 1988; Oxman, et al., 1992). Social capital relies on such networks for cooperation between residents of dilapidated urban environments to initiate collective problem solving. Social capital can be seen as a by-product of social relations that promote trust and mutual cooperation and is therefore not a characteristic of one particular individual, but rather a collective characteristic. As such, social capital can facilitate remedial action in an urban setting and promote specific steps necessary for local problem solving.

There are two components to social capital: localized and bridging capital. Localized capital, inherent in existing social or religious groups, is necessary but not sufficient for community problem solving, because it may produce redundant information not pertinent to improving inner-city neighborhoods (Granovetter, 1973). In contrast, bridging social capital connects various groups and can reveal new information for local problem solving and create new opportunities. Therefore, a public health intervention that sequentially builds social networks to augment localized social capital and facilitates bridging capital should result in collective efficacy that would engage residents in direct social action (Sampson, et al., 1999). This intervention aims to realize community projects in the grid city that build community capacity and governance skills for consensus decision-making and community stewardship.

Although building social networks and social capital to solve community problems has merit on its own, it can also indirectly promote public health: social support and friendship ties reduce mortality and morbidity (House, et al., 1988; Semenza, et al., 1996, Semenza, et al., 1999); lack of trust between neighborhood residents is associated with increased risk of death from cardiovascular diseases (Kawachi, et al., 1997) and in U.S. states with lower levels of social capital, self-reported health is poorer, controlling for individual risk factors (Lochner, et al., 1999; Kawachi, et al., 1999). Social capital has also been related to mental health in adolescents (Aneshensel and Sucoff, 1996), adolescent birth rates (Denner, et al., 2001), and firearm deaths (Kennedy, et al., 1998).

It has been recognized that voluntary involvement in organizations and institutions is crucial for local problem solving (Bellah, et al., 1996), disease prevention (Green, 1990) and mental health (Naparstek, et al., 1982); however, it has proven challenging to realize such programs (Sieler-Wells , 1989). The procedure described here has been institutionalized and builds both localized and bridging social capital, through an ecologic intervention. The intervention encourages residents to improve the urban "grid-scape" physically (streets and public squares) in order to stimulate walking; it supports neighbors to build worthwhile destinations for pedestrians in the public realm that are inviting socially in order to improve social networks and cohesion and it engages participants to beautify the neighborhood symbolically thereby to creating a sense of belonging and pride.

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