We are what we measure.   It's time to measure what we want to be.

Key term: Community Capital


Community Capital: the natural, human, social, and built capital from which a community receives benefits and on which the community relies for continued existence.

The term 'capital' is most commonly used to refer to money and material goods. However, in the context of sustainability, communities have several different types of capital that need to be considered -- natural, human, social, and built capital. Together, these types of capital are referred to as community capital. All four types of capital are necessary for communities to function. All four types of capital need to be managed by a community. All four types of capital need to be cared for, nurtured and improved over time. Community capital can be thought of as a triangle, as illustrated by the picture below:
Community Capital

Natural Capital

At the base of the pyramid there are three blocks of natural capital: natural resources, ecosystem services, and the aesthetics or beauty of nature.

Natural resources are all of those things that we take out of nature and use: water, plants, animals, and materials from the earth such as fossil fuels, metals and minerals. All of these are things that we use up, either as raw material or as part of a production process. The end result is either a finished product, waste material or both.

Ecosystem services are natural processes that we rely on in some way. For example, soil in an acre of farmland can produce food that we eat or material for clothes that we wear. Wetlands filter water and soak up flood waters. Estuaries provide habitat for shellfish and other food that we eat. If we are careful not to overuse them, these natural processes will provide us with services indefinitely. However, if we are not careful in how we use them, we can degrade them. Farmed carelessly, soil on a farm erodes or loses essential nutrients. Sediment in wetlands reduces their ability to filter water. Fill a wetland and it no longer provides a buffer against flooding. Runoff into coastal waters and over-harvesting can degrade or deplete shellfish beds to the point that they are no longer viable.

The third block of natural capital is the aesthetics or beauty of nature. Flowers in a window box, a view of a mountain range or seashore, a park on a warm summer day, the song of a bird, and a sky full of stars on a clear winter night are all parts of the beauty of nature. In addition to contributing to our general quality of life, the beauty of nature is essential to tourism and recreation, which form the basis of some communities' economy.

Social and Human Capital

The next level of the community capital pyramid is social and human capital. This level has two blocks -- people and connections:

Human capital is each individual's personal skills and abilities, physical and mental health, and education. Social capital is the connections in a community -- the ways in which people interact and relate to each other. The simplest connections are connections to family, friends and neighbors. On a larger scale, we form connections through community and volunteer organizations, the ability of groups of people to form governments to deal with common problems, and the ability of people to form companies to create goods and services to satisfy the needs of the community.

The five blocks of natural capital and human and social capital form the base of community capital. With these five blocks, communities create the sixth block, built capital.

Built Capital

Built capital includes roads, heavy equipment, factory buildings, houses, and apartment buildings. It includes basic necessities like food and clothing. It also includes things that, although not strictly necessary, many people in developed countries would be loath to do without, like dishwashers, cars, telephones and computers.

A Sustainable Community

A sustainable community takes good care of all its capital, natural, human, and social in addition to its built capital, in order to continually improve the quality of life of all its inhabitants. To invest capital is to manage it in a way that improves its value, so that the capital provides benefits now and in the future. When you invest monetary capital, you earn interest so the value of that capital grows. When you invest in natural or social capital, its value also grows, but in ways much harder to measure:

  • Educating children, providing preventive health care, eating right, getting plenty of exercise, training workers, and developing peaceful relations with other nations are all examples of investing in human and social capital.
  • Preserving prime farmlands and wetlands, preventing pollution, using resources no faster than they are renewed, and managing wastes in ecologically sound ways are all examples of investing in natural capital.

When a child grows up hungry and uneducated or a wetland is paved over, our community capital is degraded. All around the world there are examples of communities using up their natural and social capital, living off the principal rather than living off the interest:

  • The world's fisheries such as Georges Bank off the coast of North America have been seriously depleted.
  • In Brazil, the rain-forests are being cut down at an ever increasing rate.
  • In the U.S., aquifers of clean water are being drawn down without hope of recharging them.
  • There is a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor.
  • Crime and drug use are tearing apart the fabric of society.

These are examples of unsustainable communities, communities that are living off the principal of their community capital instead of investing that capital and living off the interest. A sustainable community wisely manages all its capital -- using and improving the social, natural and built capital in ways that allow that capital to continue to support that community in the future. Living off the interest of community capital is one way to define the next term: carrying capacity.