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Civic Engagement to Build a Great Community Together
By Ed Everett, Former City Manager

As employees of Redwood City, much of the work we do for and with the citizens of our City is guided by our core purpose: “Build a Great Community Together.” For me, the concept of ‘community building’ is at the very heart of the City’s values and vision.

Redwood City operates both efficiently and effectively, based on benchmarking data we collect and analyze; however there is always room for improvement. A well-led and well-managed city, while necessary, is not sufficient to achieve excellence. To become a city that is a step above all other cities, a city that is the envy of others, a city that is talked about, Redwood City must become a stronger community and not just a well-run city.

Redwood City is evolving into a strong community, but to foster this evolution we need to better understand the role of civic engagement and participation, and recognize what has happened nationally in this regard over the past 40 or 50 years.

I’ve found a great deal of valuable information in a book entitled Bowling Alone – The Collapse and Revival of the American Community, by Robert Putnam, which provides an in-depth analysis of the issue of “civic engagement.” The general conclusion, based on strong analytical data, is that civic engagement/participation has dramatically decreased nation-wide from a high point in the early 1960s to the present low point.

In general, the author defines civic engagement/participation (or “social capital”) as a community’s membership in national groups/civics groups/religious organizations; political activities; informal connections; altruism/giving; and trust and honesty (among other factors). Without question, there has been a precipitous decline in each of these areas of social capital. This decline represents a loss of a “sense of community,” and it is widespread and significant. It is my passion that our City government can, and must, play a significant role in turning this national trend around here in Redwood City.

In order to know how we can impact this sharp decline in civic participation and social capital we first must know what caused that reported decline. The author has identified what he believes are the four key factors contributing to this decline in social capital:

1) Pressures of time and money, including the particular pressures on two-career families. People are busier, they have more demands on their time, and more pressure to make money – all resulting in less time and energy spent in civic engagement.

2) Suburbanization, commuting, and urban sprawl, resulting in people being more disconnected from their community, more spread out and less likely to participate in civic activities. The author estimates that f these first two factors account for 10% (each) of the decline in social capital.

3) The effect of electronic entertainment – primarily television – accounts for perhaps 25% of the problem. Overall, the use of televisions, VCRs, personal computers, the Internet, and video games are all on the increase, and the author concludes that this use is a direct cause of a decrease in civic participation; for example, studies show that in the evenings Americans, above all else, watch TV thus reducing available time (and perhaps willingness?) for civic engagement.

4) The most significant contributor to the decrease in civic engagement, according to the author, is generational change – the slow, steady, and inevitable replacement of the civically-involved generation by their less-involved children and grandchildren. This may account for perhaps 50% of the overall decline.

The author concludes that, “Each generation…since the 1950s has been less engaged in community affairs than their immediate predecessor.” Interestingly, those born before the mid-1940s and those born after 1964 both see family, friends, and co-workers as providing a sense of belonging. However, these two groups separate significantly when it comes to seeing neighbors, churches, local communities, and organizations as giving them a sense of community.

In summary, we see a nationwide trend that started in the mid 1960s of civic disengagement, or a loss of social capital. We now know that the main causes appear to be time spent on electronic entertainment, and generational changes. So what difference does this all make? Are we worse off because of this loss of social capital? Should we care?

I propose that this decrease in social capital makes a significant difference in very important areas in our community. First, here are some reasons why social capital is important.

Social capital…

1. allows citizens to resolve collective problems more clearly without always looking to government to solve their problems;
2. “greases the wheels” that allow communities to advance smoothly without constant fighting, bickering, or polarizing;
3. improves our lot by widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fates are linked together.

More pragmatically, the author developed an index of 14 social capital variables, then ranked each state. States with higher social capital are centered over the head waters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and extend east and west along the Canadian border. States with low social capital are generally in the South. California and the mid-Atlantic states are generally average in the social capital index.

The author examines five broad policy areas and correlates them with high/low social capital. Let’s look at three of those areas in more detail:

Education and Child Welfare
The author states that there is a strong statistical correlation between high social capital and positive child development (although not necessarily a cause/effect). He further concludes that social capital is second only to poverty in the breadth and depth of effect on children’s lives.

In fact, social capital of a community or area has a greater impact on child development than the educational level of the adult population, the ratio of single parent families, and a state’s racial composition. The author also draws the strong correlation between social capital and child welfare, educational performance, and low TV watching. The facts are indisputable: low social capital/civic participation has a direct negative impact on childhood development. This is one good reason we should care about this historical downward trend in social capital.

Safe and Productive Neighborhoods
The author concludes that high social capital fosters lower criminal activity. He focuses on a state’s per capita murder rate as an indicator of many criminal activities, and his research shows that states with more social capital have proportionally fewer murders.

The author says that social capital is about as important as poverty, urbanism and racial composition, and is more important than educational level, rate of single parent households, and income inequality, in determining a state’s homicide prevalence.

The author states that there is some evidence to suggest that community policing, a kind of “applied social capital” does in fact reduce social disorder and crime, in part through the development and activation of local social capital.

Health and Happiness
The author discovered that the statistical connection between social capital and positive health and well being is as strong as the statistical connection between smoking and poor health. In fact, in the author’s view, the research concludes that moving to a high social capital state would do almost as much good for your health as quitting smoking.

Numerous studies tell us that social engagement has an independent influence on how long we live. The author concludes - “If you belong to no groups but decide to join one (and be an active member) you cut you risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.”

Happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections. The author looked at the relationship of happiness to income, education, and marriage and concludes that “regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the ‘happiness equivalent’ of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income. Civic connections rival marriage and affluence as predictors of life’s happiness.”

Whether folks want to believe it or not, the statistical data shows that social capital is directly related to and causes higher educational performance, positive child development, community safety, and personal health and happiness. I’m sure you’ll agree that these are powerful and important implications.

Given that social capital has fallen from the 1960’s to present, given that we know many of its causes but not all, given that social capital plays such an important role in education, child welfare, safety, health and happiness, then what are we going to do to improve social capital in Redwood City? I’ve noted elsewhere some of the programs that we, as your City government, are engaged in to try and help reverse this trend.

More importantly, I want your thoughts and ideas on this, as we focus on trying to answer this very important question. Send me an email at, and I promise to incorporate your ideas as the City and the people of Redwood City move forward to build a great community together.

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