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Local Governments’ Role in Enhancing Social Interactions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Julia Glickman and Joshua Pine
November 3, 2023

Local governments play a critical part in understanding the role of social infrastructure according to the Surgeon General of the United States. The Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community defines social infrastructure as “the programs, policies and physical elements of a community that support the development of social connection.” This Advisory emphasizes how crucial local leaders are when it comes to leveraging and building social infrastructure to equitably support all residents. This is a vital public health need, especially considering that loneliness can increase the risk for premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

Through The Opportunity Project (TOP) at the U.S. Census Bureau, the National League of Cities is engaging four civic innovation and academic groups, along with numerous local leaders and nonprofit experts, in a 12-week sprint designed to build open-source data tools. This process is designed to develop resources that will empower local leaders to leverage data to equitably promote physical assets that improve social connectivity. These tools will be finalized and publicly shared in early 2024.

During this sprint process, our team has discovered that much social infrastructure exists in spaces like libraries, parks or schools, that are managed by local governments. By looking at where these spaces are, how they are currently used and who has access to them, local leaders can assess how these spaces can better meet the needs of the community and serve a role in social connection. Public-private partnerships are another important piece of the equation, as social infrastructure within communities often comes from restaurants, grocery stores, laundromats, universities and other small businesses or nonprofit organizations. To fully understand the landscape of social infrastructure in a city, local leaders need to consider both public and private spaces.

Many policies, programs and even city planning at the local level can be viewed through the lens of social connectivity. In the same way that policymakers factor in community input, equity or environmental implications when designing policies and programs, they may also consider how any given program may build or hinder social connectivity. Efforts to build social infrastructure vary from city to city. Some may look to strengthen social infrastructure through programming in libraries and community centers, while other cities might look to enhance public space in transit and retail centers to make these spaces more friendly for social gatherings. Local governments across the country are implementing creative and innovative strategies to build social infrastructure. The data sprint process has revealed how some local leaders have leveraged their specific assets to develop an approach to building social connectivity. Here are a few examples of how cities are tackling this challenge:

  • According to a poll conducted in 2020, residents in Tulsa, OK who felt a strong connection to their neighborhood and felt heard by city leaders were over twice as likely to be thriving. This finding led the City of Tulsa to undergo a reorganization earlier this year leading to the creation of a new Department of City Experience which brings together Community Development and Housing, City Planning, the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Equity and more. This new strategic focus on promoting a sense of belonging in one’s neighborhood prioritizes social cohesion and connectivity.
  • Stockton, CA has prioritized strengthening social infrastructure and communities. One of the city’s strategic plan objectives is “Thriving and Healthy Neighborhoods” which includes strategies like establishing a cross departmental team to strengthen neighborhoods, increasing placemaking and space activation and aligning youth programs with community interests and needs. In 2016, voters approved a one-quarter cent sales tax to fund the Strong Communities program. These funds are reserved for the City of Stockton’s Recreation and Library programming and services, to bolster these community programs and better meet the needs of residents. Strong Communities funds are governed by a Citizen’s Advisory Committee, which advises on the uses of these funds and makes recommendations to city council.
  • Cambridge, MA is looking to activate social infrastructure created through an open streets program which restricts car access to promote personal neighborhood connections. Beyond that, the city’s  Block Party Program, provides $200 to allow residents to host a block party in their neighborhood, as well as streamlined permitting processes. With this help from the city, the number of neighborhood gatherings has grown at a rapid clip. In 2023, since the program began, there have been 78 applications for block party permits compared to 23 applications in 2022.

The Opportunity Project data sprint has shown us that we can learn about the presence of social infrastructure and social networks in communities through data, but that data measuring social cohesion is imperfect and complex. Cities are already making strategic investments to build connectivity—they are rethinking their organizational structures, thinking up new ways of funding social programing and incentivizing community organizations to do more community programming. By investing in data and tools to better understand the presence of social infrastructure in communities, we hope to better equip local leaders to make strategic decisions on how to build and leverage social infrastructure to promote equity and support social connectivity for residents. 

Author: Julia Glickman: Senior Program Specialist for City Innovation at the National League of Cities an MPA student at George Washington University.

Author: Joshua Pine: Program Manager for City Innovation and Data at the National League of Cities. He previously worked with the City of South Bend on transportation planning.  

This article was written under the auspices of Barrett and Greene, Inc.

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