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Building the Social City

The networks of relationships needed to make a community not only liveable but also sociable can be vast and complex. But as Milton Friesen writes, they can also be entered into, appreciated and drawn upon by something as simple and convivial as shared conversation over grits and fried catfish. 

4 minute read
Topics: Social Architecture, Cities, Cultural Renewal
Building the Social City March 21, 2017  |  By Milton Friesen
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Chief among the privileges of leading the Cardus Social Cities program are the many opportunities to meet people who are doing significant work in communities and cities across Canada, the United States and around the world. These conversations, email exchanges, phone calls, conference meetings, site visits and project collaborations constitute a counterpoint to what most people might imagine think tank work consists of.

While I am constantly navigating through the sea of words represented by printed work in books and articles, Twitter feeds and technical academic papers relevant to the social dynamics of cities, the core of Social Cities is relational. One past week was a good example of that.

On Tuesday afternoon TrueCity Hamilton director, Dave Witt brought two colleagues to my office to spend a couple of hours talking about how to attend to the challenging landscape of social networks that constitute the church communities active in TrueCity, and the many others who are not connected. We talked about how to measure social impact, what it might mean to make use of network science to explore needs and opportunities, and how researchers are undertaking that work from many different angles. My conversation with them was preceded by many years of engagement with TrueCity and social capital research. Faith communities comprise a critical component of common good generation in our neighbourhoods.

Thursday was spent being hosted by Cameron Airhart, Dean of Houghton College, Buffalo. I visited the small urban campus in 2014 when it was just getting started with a vision to provide educational opportunities to college-age immigrant students facing significant economic challenges. I had a chance to meet staff, students, and see how the program has grown since its inception. Houghton now offers the first two years of study toward an arts degree at the University at Buffalo (State University of New York). Surrounding the success of that program is a network of innovative and collaborative people committed to evolving solutions tuned to context instead of ill-fitting, imported frameworks that don’t work.

That was followed by a meeting and site visit with Cindi McEachon, Executive Director of Peaceprints™ of Western New York. Cindi is leading an organization committed to helping released prisoners become contributing members of their respective communities. To that end, she is working with various partners to bring together residence space, educational space and funding support to further enrich this vital work. Cindi has been recognized as one of Buffalo’s “Women Who Move the City” and her evident commitment is a powerful antidote to apathy or resignation.

I was then hosted at Mattie’s, an East Side soul food restaurant founded by Mattie and her husband George in 1972. Over grits and fried catfish, I learned more about growth and challenges in Buffalo from retired Houghton College administrator and faculty member, Chuck Massey. I was also encouraged to hear from Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo staff member Andrew Gaerte about new programs that are emerging across the community aimed at bridging the racial and economic divides in Buffalo. (In late January, Dean Airhart, Chuck and Andrew had traveled from Buffalo to Hamilton to attend the Rev. Dr. Rosalyn Murphy’s lecture on “The Church in Hard-Pressed Cities” in response to an invite I extended.)

Additional site visits and conversations included time spent with Rev. Richard Allen Stenhouse at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (the oldest black religious institution in Buffalo). I learned about the remarkable initiative in the recent history of the congregation, which included a range of community partnerships that led to building nearly 50 new homes for those in need of housing. Not far away, Westminster Presbyterian Church also has a long history of care for the city including work with in the city including the Westminster Economic Development Initiative. One of the WEDI projects includes the West Side Bazaar – a Buffalo original “international small business incubator.”

Friday I was back in Toronto at Early Bird Espresso on Queen Street West meeting with City of Red Deer Research and Evaluation Coordinator, Brendon Neilson. Brendon has a PhD in Theology and now finds himself working as a city staff member with oversight for social measures, reporting on community initiatives and engagement around an emerging social policy framework. These are significant challenges in a city of 100,000 where 2016 saw a negative growth rate of 1%, the only year (outside a 0.1% drop in 1970) that has happened since statistics on the city began to be collected in 1898.

Many aspects of the Social Cities work come into play when discussing how to re-weave and strengthen the social and institutional fabric of a community. Direct conversations like these arising from earlier phone calls, meetings with people we know in common, and a commitment exploring what makes a good city deepen our understanding together about how to approach our work.

All of these experiences reflect the role that projects like The Halo Report, our developing City Soul Explorer Toolkit, articles on social infrastructure, social capital research, data mapping, charitable sector trending, and relational investments in convening play in attending to what our future together might look like. I came away from last week deeply encouraged by these kinds of courageous and committed people knowing very well that there are many others who are serving with equal passion without notice or recognition. These efforts constitute the core aspects of the social infrastructure that we all depend on, networks of people, organizations and institutions that are every bit as vital to our common good as bridges are to our transportation infrastructure or water pipes are to our utility infrastructure.

Your ideas, experiences and support are needed as we continue to chase the two driving questions of the Social Cities program: What makes a good city? And how do we get there?

Milton Friesen is Program Director for Cardus Social Cities.

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