Capital gains

If social capital lies at the heart of our health and wellbeing, how do you build it up? Sarah Frost visits Canada and the United States and discovers a little lateral thinking can go a long way

Sarah Frost with the Fremont Troll in Seattle, one of the first Neighborhood Matching Fund projects.

People with high levels of social capital are generally happier and healthier than similar individuals with low levels of social capital. But what mechanisms can help build and increase social capital in communities with a view to improving wellbeing?

There is rising interest in community development approaches to health improvement and community health champions being delivered by Altogether Better are one example that is already showing an impact on social capital in communities across Yorkshire and Humber.

Aligned to this there is increasing policy interest in asset based approaches which can enable communities to address their own needs and capacity to lever in external support.

Such methods have become commonplace across North America and there’s much to learn from the projects that have emerged.

‘It’s about faces – not places.’ These are words that will stick with me from my time spent in the company of David Derbyshire, a community development worker in Hamilton, Ontario. David is a truly remarkable and inspirational (and incredibly modest) individual who clearly cares deeply about people and about communities.

Core to his approach are the connections and relationships he skilfully builds with and between people in the communities he works in. He sees himself as a ‘conduit’ for action and for building capacity in individuals and communities to enable them to identify and mobilise the assets they have. He takes a truly asset based approach and seeks to ‘empower people to do what they want to do’.

Hamilton is a place with large health inequalities and high unemployment in sections of the city. We visited the McQuesten neighbourhood, a public housing area inhabited by what David described as ‘the working poor’. The area has a diverse community made up of people from many different cultures. Racism has been problem in the past and there was a time when people across the street from one other would not talk to each other. Now things are very different.

With David’s facilitation, the McQuesten community has identified and mobilised a huge range of ‘assets’ including:

  • A community garden for residents to grow their own fruit and veg
  • Block parties and community BBQ’s where neighbours get together for a social gathering
  • Several well-maintained playgrounds for children
  • Lots of green space
  • A community centre providing a whole range of activities and services
  • A community planning team (CPT), made up of service providers, local businesses and local residents, which meets monthly to address local needs and issues

This comment from Celeste, a member of the CPT, sums up the value of taking an asset based approach and of communities working together, and highlights the social capital that can result when people come together: ‘What I love about it is that people who didn’t know each other now know each other and help each other.’

The True Sport Foundation has been exploring asset based approaches in four communities across Canada. It sees sport as ‘a public asset’ where people come together to integrate, communicate and make new connections. Sport can also be a tool to help build more resilient communities through promoting a range of values and principles which are applicable way beyond the playing field:

  • Go for it – always rise to the challenge
  • Play fair – play honestly and obey the rules
  • Respect others – respect teammates, competitors and officials both on and off the field
  • Keep it fun – have a good time
  • Stay healthy – respect your body, stay in shape
  • Give back – do something that helps your community

True Sport has funded a range of activities aimed at increasing accessibility and inclusivity in ‘sport’ (in its broadest sense from increased recreation and use of parks and green spaces to more structured, traditional sporting activities). The criteria for funding applications states that all projects should involve sport but should also:

  • Enhance a sense of belonging to the community
  • Allow residents to give back to the community (e.g. through volunteering)
  • Build skills, knowledge and ability to continue to strengthen the community in the future

So the activities funded are as much about identifying and mobilising community assets, promoting the principles of good community engagement and building social capital as they are about soccer or hockey.

Our social networks and peers can be a valuable asset, especially for those living with a chronic condition. Peer support can help build the necessary knowledge, skills and confidence needed for good self-management and have a role in helping with: identifying local resources, e.g. where to buy healthy foods, good locations for exercise; helping people cope with social or emotional barriers; helping to keep people motivated to reach their health goals; and identifying when it is necessary to seek medical assistance.

A number of community health centres in Canada deliver self-management programmes. The Live, Learn and Share programme in Toronto focuses on diabetes self-management. Programme manager, Michelle Westin, explained how the programme was developed to meet an identified need from local people with diabetes: ‘They wanted to meet others with diabetes, to share experience, break isolation, learn about management strategies and form connections.’ So, as well as improving self-management, it’s also about building social capital and connecting people.

Sandra, a peer supporter who has had diabetes for six years but only felt able to speak openly about her condition a year ago as result of her involvement in the peer support programme, now runs a support group. She told me how the programme and training she received gave her ‘the knowledge to help other people… and I feel good about that’.

The programme also uses a strength based approach, ‘focusing on the wisdom, capacities and expertise of community members’. So it’s about identifying the assets of individuals and in communities to improve outcomes.

Over the boarder in Seattle, the Neighborhood Matching Fund (NMF) also provides a mechanism to identify and mobilise community assets and to build social capital. The NMF funds a range of projects ranging from renovating disused buildings to public art work, from youth programmes to play parks and literacy programmes.

The central notion of the programme is that the community ‘matches’ the funding received from the NMF. The ‘match’ from communities can be in the form of volunteer hours, donations of cash or materials. All applications must demonstrate that they reflect all sections of the community and show how they encourage people to have access to the project planning process – not just the finished work.

Every NMF project is as much about encouraging and supporting community organising as the final product (e.g. a new park bench). A key aim is to ‘help people more intentionally connect’, thereby building social capital. Many of the key benefits of the NMF are linked to the use of assets and building of social capital, in the sense that:

  • Planning a project encourages people to identify what assets they have that could be used to help achieve it e.g. skills, knowledge, time, materials, buildings, networks
  • People develop new relationships with people they didn’t know before
  • Projects get people interested in projects which are of benefit to the community
  • Projects encourage people develop new passion and new interest e.g. in the environment
  • Projects create and leave residual learning for community members which can be used time and time again

Through their involvement in NMF, people become more aware of the opportunity to become grass roots leaders in their communities and gain a greater sense of what they can contribute. It can inspire people to think, ‘I can do that’.


Goat Hill Giving Garden, a small plot among high rise blocks in Seattle’s business district, is managed by King County employees in their own time and produce is donated to Pike Place Seniors Centre and Downtown Foodbank.

Gardening has the potential to hit on a range of health and wellbeing outcomes including healthy eating through growing and eating fresh produce, physical activity (gardening requires physical exertion!), mental health (people working together, sharing skills and knowledge – increasing confidence, skills and self esteem), and improved social capital – gardens can be a social space for people to meet up and connect with new people through a shared interest thereby reducing social isolation.

In order to encourage the development of these outcomes Seattle has over 75 ‘P-Patch’ gardens across the city, serving around 4,500 gardeners. Overseen by the Department of Neighborhoods and the P-Patch Trust, the gardens are managed by the communities they serve.

I visited several P-Patches, all slightly different in terms of size, locations, who uses them and what is grown but all with a burgeoning array of produce and flowers blooming. Some have kitchens so people can cook together, others have playgrounds so that kids can play while parents garden, others have a children’s garden so that children can learn about plants and growing stuff from an early age.

Many P-Patches also have an area dedicated to providing produce to local ‘food banks’ – so the gardeners are helping out their neighbours who may not have access to fresh produce easily. The P-Patch scheme is helping communities to help themselves in a whole range of ways including: growing community and nurturing civic engagement; improving access to local, organic, and culturally appropriate food; transforming the appearance and revitalising the spirit of their neighbourhoods; developing self-reliance and improving nutrition; feeding the hungry; and building understanding between generations and cultures through gardening and cooking.


  1. Asset based approaches and community engagement initiatives can be a mechanism to help build social capital and meet government policy targets around reducing health inequalities, increasing uptake of services, increasing early identification of health problems and reducing risk factors and encouraging people to take an active role in their communities.
  2. There is a need for a holistic approach to improved wellbeing that takes into account the social determinants of health. This requires partnership working across sectors to avoid ‘silo’ working which can be issue specific.
  3. Health improvement initiatives need to be as much about addressing the material circumstances in which people live as about addressing specific health needs. Where people live, work and raise their children has a huge impact on health.
  4. There is a need for greater emphasis on the importance of ‘place’ and the role of community and community assets in promoting wellbeing, particularly in more disadvantaged areas.
  5. Community building and increased social capital can be built into other projects. Funders and commissioners of health promotion work should: encourage the identification and mobilising of community assets in proposals; embed and promote the principles of good community engagement in new work; and encourage building social capital as a central aspect of any proposal aimed at reducing health inequalities.


  • Altogether Better is a five year Big Lottery Wellbeing Programme aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of communities across the region where 16 local projects recruit, train and support community and workplace ‘community health champions’. Sarah made the trip to Canada and the United States via a travelling fellowship awarded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, Find out more about her experiences during the trip on her blog.
  • Download the ezine version of this article.


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