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'Numbers Man' Gable Imagines Better Future through Social Capital

on February 14, 2011 7:12 AM

By his own account, Charles R. Gable is a numbers man. A Republican member of the State College Planning Commission, he likes data -- the stuff that's concrete.

Any touchy-feely, kumbaya-style approach to governance is generally "the complete opposite of what I'm used to," he says.

But in working on his Penn State master's degree, Gable delved into something completely mushy and rather abstract last year.

And -- it turns out -- this mush just might hold promise for helping to shore up town-gown relations in the Centre Region.

The "mush" -- no slight intended, Charles -- is known as social capital. It's an intangible element, but academics loosely define it as a sort of community glue. We build it up when we collaborate, when we connect and network, when we give our time and participate in community organizations. Neighborhood picnics, scouting troops, activist groups, political rallies, volunteerism -- they all contribute to a shared sense of being, collective energy and ability, our social capital.

In short, it's good stuff.

Unfortunately, social capital has waned in the U.S. since the '60s, according to an assessment by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and cited by Gable.

And college towns specifically face unique challenges in "Bridging Social Capital," the title of the master's paper that Gable researched and wrote last year.

With great detail, the paper delineates the chasms among social-capital groups in college towns, and how we might try to address them.

Students are on one side, networked together through their own social capital. Permanent residents are on the other, bonded through a separate set of social capital.

After spending a good year looking at our community dynamics, Gable concluded that State College, in many respects, "seems psychologically paralyzed."

"In other words," he said, "we're so afraid of the next riot and how to stop it or prevent it ... that we can't plan for the next 10 years."

He has a point. Consider the student-heavy West End neighborhood, situated west of Atherton Street. It's been waiting for a promised rebirth for well more than a decade. An overhaul of zoning there has been tied up for years, and still isn't done, even as Ferguson Township has forged ahead with its own changes.

Granted, in a lot of respects, town-gown relations seem better now than they have in some years. Student outreach in borough neighborhoods appears on the rise; relationships between fraternities and their permanent-resident neighbors seem to be improving; and the borough, in preparing for State Patty's Day, has avoided a confrontational approach. Rather, it's gone this year for a collaborative, unified effort.

But Gable, having studied what works in other college towns, thinks some fundamental innovation in borough and university operations could build even more social capital across the town-gown divide. Among the general ideas he talked about over lunch:

  • A financial incentive, from the university, to encourage new employees to live in the neighborhoods close to campus.
  • A "floor adoption" program wherein borough families could "adopt" dorm floors on campus. That would give on-campus students a direct tie to the community -- and vice-versa.
  • Unambiguous encouragement of more student housing in the borough.
  • A stronger culture of accountability, with tougher enforcement of behavioral codes on campus. (Penn State has taken steps toward this end during the current academic year.)
  • The inclusion of the borough manager in the university's president-selection process.
  • The creation of a designated town-gown liaison position -- a new job that would be devoted exclusively to fostering the rapport and communications between town and campus.

Of course, there's no sure-fire way to know how well any of these ideas may work in State College. Social scientists have identified very general ways to enhance social capital, but no universal, tried-and-true methods for college communities, Gable says.

He has shared copies of his report with university and borough officials since the start of the new year. Especially against the backdrop of upcoming State Patty's Day revelry, it should be interesting to see how his formal suggestions are interpreted.

We'll keep you posted.

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