Kevin S. Hanna
Published January 11, 2008

Case Summary

This case study examines the relationship between how a community feels about the characteristics of place and social capital. Specifically, it considers the spatial aspects of the small community of Merritt, a rural town located in the Nicola Valley of southern British Columbia, Canada.  Traditionally, the economy was resource-based, with forestry, mining and cattle ranching predominating, and to a large extent this remains the case.  Merritt had developed as a typical western Canadian resource town until an influx of new residents without ties to the community, and the resultant new development began in the 1990s. The focus of the community shifted from the old downtown to the edges and the suburbs with a resulting erosion of social capital.  Based on socio-economic indices, Merritt ranks among the ten worst communities in BC. The 2006 BC stats survey actually shows an improvement over previous years; Merritt now ranks seventh with one being the worst (BC Stats is the central statistics agency for the BC government). 

Sustainable Development Characteristics

People are attracted to a place by both its physical and social amenities. Often, however, sporadic development and ad hoc planning as immigration increases destroys the various original characteristics of the place that first drew people. The relationship between place and how it shapes the building or diminishing of social capital in a community has not previously been explored in sustainable development theory and literature. There are numerous studies making linkages between the amount of green space and crime in a community, but little has been written about the interrelationships between place, social capital and sustainable community development.

Critical Success Factors

Bridging connects people (or bonded groups) who share characteristics, but are more distant ‘colleagues and associates’ (Woolcock, 2004). Bridging social capital networks may facilitate access to resources and opportunities that exist in one network to a member of another, but it may be weakened by spatial separation. Bridging is also characterized by weak ties (Granovetter, 1986); again highlighting the potential importance of spatial or place qualities.  In Merritt, there was some indication that networks exist that greatly support bonding capital, though these can be exclusionary, class and income based, and often intentionally isolated. Ironically, they also mitigate against economic development diversification in the long-term. The case study of Merritt suggests that this form of social capital is weak, and has probably been so for some time. This may be mirrored in many small communities, where tight social alliances reinforce existing internal bonds, but are limited in their potential for creating bridging networks.

Community Contact Information

Kevin S. Hanna Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Geography and Environmental Studies

Wilfrid Laurier University
75 University Avenue
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G5
Tel: 519. 884-0710, x 2211

What Worked?

Downtowns serve, in both small and large communities, as the places where people interact, meet informally, and gather together for social and recreational events. Their design provides a space for interaction and relationship. Towns invest in the architecture of their downtown, and the centre becomes a place of pride. Downtowns provide compact convenience for shopping and services. A traditional downtown is a sensible construct with a certain pragmatism about land use--it is practical to live above one’s retail business, or close to the place where one works. The spatial social core of a community is its commercial centre. For years, Merritt followed this template of development and it seemed to contribute to a cohesive community.

What Didn't Work?

When new development pressures arose in Merritt in the 1990s, there was a failure of strategic thinking, lack of integrated planning for place and space, and a dearth of innovative civic political leadership at all levels that led to a shift to a more dispersed suburban focus. The result is that Merritt, like many small towns across North America, has copied the planning failures of other larger centres. The emergence of sprawl with the dispersion of shopping, services and housing to the edge of the community has led to increased social segmentation, the delineation of uses, and weakening or loss of places allowing for social intersection, with a resulting erosion of social capital.  Today, Merritt has become the victim of depersonalized retail architecture and has lost many of its small community-based businesses.  The centre of the town now conveys an image of decline, poor building maintenance, and empty streets.

The shift to a suburban focus has also splintered the spatial strength of the community and individuals, and automobile use and patterns further mitigate against the building of relationships between non-family members. Merritt's residents now travel further to work, shop and even for recreation. There is less time and less desire to become involved in the community, join groups or to maintain less formal networks. As well, the influx of new residents, many of whom are retirees with few or no previous ties to the community and little indication to become involved, has weakened the basic existing community social networks. As small communities emulate the patterns of growth seen in larger urban regions, similar social impacts are realized, and long-standing social capital strengths are eroded.

Financial Costs and Funding Sources 

Because of the lack of quantitative measures for the contribution of social capital to a community, including its economic viability, the costs and benefits of this change in development are impossible to determine. It has been determined, however, that those communities with high levels of social capital, particularly bridging and linking, are more capable of responding to external shocks and pressures, particularly in an increasingly globalized market place (Dale and Onyx, 2005).

Research Analysis

Information and insights were drawn from six focus groups and another 22 informal discussions with people living in Merritt.  The interviews were open-ended, informal conversations about a wide range of social capital. They provided useful information on elements of change and the dynamics of interaction among community members. The intent was to learn about networks that support social capital in a small town, but these discussions also revealed the centrality of place as an integral expression and determinant of social capital qualities. The principal investigator also has a personal history with the town, which provides unique insights into the situation addressed. A comprehensive systematic survey (mail and interview) is planned for the next year or so.

Detailed Background Case Description

In the past, Merritt was a rather remote and static community until the new highway from Vancouver was built, in 1986, which made the community more accessible. The local economy was based on the forest and mining industries, and cattle ranching. With the exception of mining, these activities remain both the economic and social identity anchors of the community today. The community was prosperous, and there was a certain order to where people fit in, based on race, employment, family, and education. The Merritt region has a sizeable First Nations population and though this community has certainly been an integral part of the history, economy and culture of the area, it has until recently been very separate, both socially and spatially. There is also a significant Sikh community, many of whose members originally came to the area to work in sawmilling, but it took a long time for the Sikhs to assume a less peripheral place in the community community. It was noted that while both the First Nations and Sikh communities have become more socially part of the larger community, this has been a hesitant and evolving process reflecting history, cultural dynamics and lingering discrimination.

Although Merritt has experienced many of the ups and downs common to resource-based communities across Canada, the town has generally been prosperous. It may be that with respect to growth, the greatest economic asset is no longer the extractive resources that the community was built upon, but rather the less consumptive aspects of its location. Merritt is relatively close to several major cities, it is set in a particularly beautiful landscape, and housing prices have been, until recently, affordable. All this makes it attractive to a new cohort of retirees and weekenders looking for homes in the BC interior. These people come with few, if any, ties to the traditional industries and few links to the existing community.

The most significantly visible changes have occurred during the last decade. The town now suffers from many of the problems that plague small communities across North America: a downtown in decline, the relocation of retailing to the edge, banal new architecture, and the loss or weakening of community and government services. But there are also other less visible indicators.

Based on socio-economic indices, BC Stats (2006 data) ranks Merritt as the seventh worst community to live, with one being the worst. This reflects issues such as youth-at-risk, health problems, children-at-risk, crime, and human economic hardship. Such factors would seem to point to weak or declining social capital, and on a practical level such evident social problems might overshadow the attributes that make the community attractive to outside investment, visitors and new residents.


In Merritt, the downtown remained a relatively vital place long after many similar sized North American communities had experienced core decline. This was due largely to the absence of peripheral retail development and a slow growth rate. Over the last decade, however, Merritt’s downtown has been in a slow state of decline, and the last three years have seen particularly significant shifts in core activity to edge developments. The main street is sadly quiet. Shopping has relocated to big box retailing complexes at the edge of the town, and to a lesser strip mall on the periphery of the former downtown, all of which are dependent upon the automobile. The community now has two commercial retail areas, and neither shares the form of a traditional downtown.

When the community was compact, many people walked to the core to do their shopping, meet friends, pick up the mail, or simply went to see who they might meet. As the downtown has declined, those most immediately affected are the elderly who find that they no longer live in a place where services are within walking distance.

There are other subtle changes. In the focus groups and informal discussions, two common themes were the former convenience of downtown, and the chance to engage in informal and unplanned meetings with friends by shopping on the main street.

Moving to the edge

Merritt’s new commercial core is located at the northern edge of town, near a freeway access. Gas stations and fast food outlets were the first to be built; these were followed by ‘big box’ stores, culminating in a Wal-Mart. There has been a recent dispersion of businesses to a new landscape where shops are separated by roads and parking lots, reflecting a banal ‘suburban’ form lacking scale sensitive community connections.

Growth, rather than development, has meant moving outwards, and at first glance this is not unreasonable. Merritt seems to have ‘space’ to grow; and like many other communities, expansion means growing at the periphery. What has been sacrificed in the growth process are opportunities for thinking and developing in ways that would support a cohesive and vibrant town core and pedestrian-oriented form, perhaps at the expense of social capital. The community now also faces some very demanding water management problems, and in the long-term this may determine growth rates.


The ‘main street’ is usually the heart of any community. It represents where a community has come from and where it is going, is important for attracting investment, and as an integral place of social intersection, it also serves to reinforce or build bridging social capital. The state of a community’s core may also reflect the state of its social capital. Identity is reflected in the architecture, public buildings, retail space, and cultural institutions located in a centre, which in turn tells a community’s story. Downtowns are historically compact and represent a scale of interaction that is cost efficient to service, better planned than edge development, and less dependent on cars – in other words, sustainable.

Merritt, like many other North American communities, has succumbed to depersonalized retail architecture, and has lost many of its small community-based businesses. The centre now imparts an image of decline, poor building maintenance, and empty streets. While efforts at revitalization have occurred in the past, and are being considered once again, they are unlikely to succeed since the commercial life of the community has already bled to such a great extent to the edge. With this process comes the relocation of public life to private space. The ‘conversations’ with residents reflect three themes: the absence of strategic or planning thought; lack of integrated design that considers both place and social needs; and, a lack of civic leadership. These in turn mirror larger processes of privatization, neo-liberal economic policies, and attendant decline of public spaces.

The study of Merritt shows that social quality is not necessarily a requisite for economic development.  The town has grown and prospered with gaps in the quality of social capital, but the long-term potential for dealing with transition growth and a declining set of social indicators is certainly weakened without a strong social capital base. If the elements of spatial organization that help support social capital are weakened, then a community will find it even more difficult to adapt to new stresses, and will have trouble developing new opportunities, or upholding the fundamental social elements of community well being.

Like many other small towns, Merritt has yet to capitalize on the importance of place and spatial quality to social and economic wellbeing. Decision-makers must think creatively about how places help determine the qualities of social capital, how they can create ‘space’ for social relationship, how places can be created to enhance ‘positive’ social capital, and how they can be structured to facilitate the bridging of networks and enhancement of access to social and economic opportunity.  If the elements of spatial organization that help support social capital are weakened, or destroyed, then places where there is already a paucity of social capital will find it even more difficult to adapt to new economic stresses, develop new opportunities, innovate, or sustain the fundamental social elements of community well being. There is a need to look at the relationships between public policy makers and the private forces that increasingly determine the shape of places, and the lack of quality of place for building community.

Strategic Questions

  1. How do the dynamic interaction of place, space and social capital characteristics interact to contribute to the creation and mobilization of community networks?
  2. Is social capital really necessary for sustainable community development?
  3. Why do communities consistently ignore or lose opportunities for facilitating sustainable development or enhancing social capital?
  4. Given the dominance of edge development, is the geographical core of a community still important? Why should we worry about downtowns anymore?
  5. How can a concept such as social capital be turned into positive planning action?

Resources and References

Dale, A. and J. Onyx. 2005. A Dynamic Balance: Social Capital and Sustainable Development. Vancouver: UBC Press

Hanna, Kevin S. 2007. Successful downtowns: experiences from Vancouver Island, Plan Canada, 47(1):36-39.

Hanna, Kevin S. 2005. Planning for sustainability, two contrasting communities. Journal of the American Planning Association, 71(1):27-40.

Newman, L. and A. Dale. 2006. Homophily and Agency: Creating Effective Sustainable Development Networks. Environment, Development and Sustainability, Springer (embargoed)

Newman, L. and A. Dale. 2005. The Role of Agency in Sustainable Local Community Development. Local Environment, Vol. 10(5): pp. 477-486

Chris Ling