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Sustaining area-based initiatives by developing appropriate “anchors”: the role of social capital

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Pages 325-343 | Received 01 Jul 2015, Accepted 25 May 2016, Published online: 05 Jul 2016


This paper focuses on “anchoring”, understood as the process of building project-based organizational networks, or “anchors”, in order to sustain the efforts of area-based initiatives (ABIs) after they leave their targeted neighbourhoods. Drawing on the scholarly literature on social capital and an empirical examination of three different cases from an ABI in Copenhagen, the paper highlights why and how particular models of “anchors” develop in specific local contexts. We conclude by emphasizing the value of the lens of social capital, particularly, in the ABIs’ strategic efforts towards “anchoring”.


Area-based initiatives (ABIs) are a common tool for tackling social exclusion and economic deprivation in Western European cities (De Decker, Citation2003; van Gent, Musterd, & Ostendorf, Citation2009)Footnote1. As such, processes and outcomes of these initiatives have been studied extensively (Goodlad, Burton, & Croft, Citation2005; Lawless & Pearson, Citation2012; Rhodes, Tyler, & Brennan, Citation2005; ). The diverse participatory settings ABIs claim to foster and their impact on long-term empowerment outcomes have particularly been discussed (Savini, Citation2010). Yet, there is limited explicit discussion on whether and how ABIs work to ensure that community/local networks continue to sustain their efforts beyond the lifetime of these initiatives (usually 5–6 years). Therefore, in this paper, we closely examine a Danish ABI, to focus on its strategic efforts to develop place/project-based organizational networks or what we call “anchors” that are meant to manage and sustain ABI efforts in the long run. We describe this process of strategic project-based network-building by ABIs, seeking continuation of activities when they leave the area, as “anchoring”. While one of us has highlighted the role of bonding, bridging and linking capital in ABI efforts in a recent work (Agger & Jensen, Citation2015), this paper intends to particularly highlight the importance of the concept of social capital as a useful diagnostic tool for practitioners to identify and develop appropriate “anchors” for specific projects.

The nature of ABIs and their priorities explain the potential contribution that social capital literature can make in these efforts. A key characteristic of many of the ABIs is that, in contrast to previous urban regeneration efforts, they apply an integrated or “holistic” approach to address the problems in urban neighbourhoods. This means that coordinated and simultaneous investment in different sectors, e.g. employment, physical improvements, and social initiatives, is perceived as a vital strategy for “turning around” negative developments and improving social cohesion in deprived neighbourhoods (Atkinson, Citation2008).

Another essential aspect of the ABIs is that local residents and actors are designated as an important part in setting priorities and taking actions in implementing neighbourhood projects that are part of the ABIs (Parés, Bonet-Martí, & Martí-Costa, Citation2012). Often, state governments supplementing municipal funds for ABIs, explicitly favour those with higher support from local private and non-governmental partners, representing sponsors as well as users and citizens (Burgers & Vranken, Citation2004). It is expected that such local involvement would contribute towards securing better implementation and legitimacy of the decisions being made (Carpenter, Citation2006). It is also likely to improve the chances of sustaining the projects initiated during the ABIs beyond their lifetime.

As such, a key part of ABIs’ work is to arrange participatory processes and make groups across different sectors (civil society, public agencies, and private entities) join forces in order to solve local challenges. They do so by initiating and facilitating different kinds of organizational networks that can serve as arenas for collective action. Some of these networks are built primarily to contribute to the early stages of planning where problems and solutions are contemplated. Some are formed while plans are implemented through development of physical projects and social programmes. Yet others are expected to primarily contribute to the long-term maintenance of ABI projects. Our focus in this paper is on these latter, more permanent (at least hoped to be so), organizational networks or “anchors” that are meant to sustain the ABI projects in the long run. As such, we examine how ABI planners may build in sustainability into their efforts using social capital theory as a tool to develop different models of “anchors” suitable for different projects/contexts.

The article is structured as follows. First, we engage with a theoretical discussion of different types of social capital and their relevance for building strategic project-based networks or “anchors”. In this process we also qualify our understanding of anchors. This is followed by our methodological reflections. Then a short introduction to the Danish ABIs is offered, followed by the analysis of three models of anchors in three specific projects of the Sundholm district ABI in Copenhagen. We conclude by highlighting the importance of engaging with social capital in urban policy-making and planning. We argue that in order to ensure sustainability of ABI efforts in specific local contexts, it is essential for practitioners to take into account and promote a specific combination of bridging, bonding, linking and bracing social capital most appropriate for that context. The different models of anchors”that emerge depend largely on the combination of different types of social capital, partly present in the community from the outset, and partly created/transformed during the ABI process.

Theoretical perspectives on social capital as a tool for “anchoring”

A number of scholars have related the social capital literature to urban governance (Huxham, Hambleton, & Stewart, Citation2004; Holman & Rydin, Citation2013; Maloney, Smith & Stoker, Citation2000). This literature on social capital draws attention to the social infrastructure in neighbourhoods and indicates how the level of existing networks have a value for the collective action capacity in the neighbourhoods and for the performance and efficiency of government interventions (Agger & Jensen, Citation2015; Maloney, Smith, & Stoker, Citation2000). An underlying assumption in the social capital literature is that participation in networks generates different resources, e.g. information or access to resources and contacts that can benefit joint action capacities. There are a number of definitions of social capital (Halpern, Citation2005; Svendsen & Svendsen, Citation2009), but a common denominator in the different understandings is that social capital is a particular type of resource available to individuals or organizations that facilitate collective action. Social capital consists of three components: networks, a cluster of norms (values, and expectancies shared by a group of members) and finally sanctions that refer to punishments and rewards to help maintain the norms and the networks (Halpern, Citation2005, p. 10). Together these components characterize the nature and the degree of social capital present in different contexts.

The scholarly literature on social capital commonly mentions that participation in local networks has the potential of generating trust in each other, in the civil society, and in the political system (See e.g. Halpern, Citation2005; Svendsen & Svendsen, Citation2009). Social capital is therefore often considered to be the “missing link” that can explain why some societies or neighbourhoods seem to flourish more than others, economically and culturally. Scholars such as Putnam (Citation1993, Citation1995) have demonstrated how strengthening civic engagement in local neighbourhood development and local politics has the potential to strengthen democracy at a national level. Civic participation in local networks (e.g. clubs, volunteer associations, school boards) is therefore considered as an important indicator of the state of social capital in a locality.

Social capital can take different forms depending on how inclusive or exclusive the networks are. One of the most common differentiations proposed by Putnam (Citation1995) distinguishes between bonding and bridging social capital. Bonding social capital refers to horizontal social relations and norms that build on similarity, informality, and intimacy, developing strong ties and relations within groups often in similar sociodemographic situations, e.g. among families or close friends (Firth, Maye, & Pearson, Citation2011, p. 558). The existence of bonding social capital helps groups to develop a sense of togetherness, common identity and trust, to share, help, and work together for the sake of the group. In contrast, bridging social capital refers to formal and informal horizontal relations and norms among demographically diverse individuals. Bridging helps different people to respect and better understand each other, develop social cohesion, and work towards common well-being (Halpern, Citation2005, p.19–20).

Whereas bonding and bridging social capital is mainly oriented towards horizontal relations, there have been attempts to capture other sorts of vertical relations that connect individuals or groups to people in positions of political or financial power. Scholars have increasingly pointed out the importance of vertical relations that provide crucial access to leveraging resources, ideas, and information that go beyond the normal community linkages and can play a vital role for communities to attract external resources(Baerenholdt & Aarsaether, Citation2002; Szreter, Citation2002). Szreter & Woolcock (Citation2004) use the term “linking social capital” to describe such vertical ties. This sort of social capital helps people to know who to and how to reach out for community needs, gain knowledge, and as a result develop trust towards the political system and their own capacity to influence it (Szreter & Woolcock, Citation2004, p. 653).

Another form of social capital that Rydin and Holman (Citation2004) introduced as a combination of bonding and bridging capital (we would add linking capital) is “bracing social capital”. This form of social capital is characterized as a sort of scaffolding that strengthens the links across and between scale and sectors but only within a limited set of actors. Most importantly, bracing capital is not necessarily a group level attribute. Rather, it helps us identify “hubs within networks” or “network manager(s)” capable and willing to hold the diverse actors within networks together and make them work together (Holman & Rydin, Citation2013).

The notions of linking and bracing social capital in particular directs attention to how networks that consist of or are facilitated by government officials or other actors external to the community group can help to mediate, facilitate, or convene arenas where community actors may communicate with representatives from different forms of external power relations. As such, agreeing with the main criticism of Putnam’s neglect of the role of public authorities in creating social capital (Hulgard & Bisballe, Citation2003), we argue that ABI practitioners can indeed play an important role in strengthening local social capital. In fact, we demonstrate in this paper, how ABI planners may work with and develop existing levels of social capital to create appropriate “anchors” in order to ensure long-term sustainability of their efforts.

We find that the different forms of social capital gives us a useful diagnostic tool for examining what model of anchor may be developed in a particular context. The point is that all the different forms of social capital can exist or be activated at the local level (Firth et al., Citation2011; Foord, Ginsburg, Boddy, & Parkinson, Citation2004; Lang & Novy, Citation2013) and thereby be used strategically in relation to ABIs and anchoring (Agger & Jensen, Citation2015). We think that all four forms of social capital are essential for spurring interaction and joint action-capacity among local residents/stakeholders, and therefore contribute to the process of anchoring.

There seems to be a connection between these different forms of social capital. For instance, without a certain amount of bonding capital it would be difficult to develop bridging capital, while very strong bonding could also be an impediment to bridging. Again, without substantial bonding and bridging capital it would be difficult to foster linking capital. Bracing capital, however, may exist even in contexts that lack other forms of social capital, if particular agencies play an exceptionally strong role in bringing diverse actors together to make an anchor work. Therefore, when ABIs intend to embed projects in local communities, they need to invest equally in all the different forms of social capital. Discussions about anchoring activities generated by ABIs therefore must relate to what kinds of networks and types of social capital exist in an area and how they may be developed further.

Anchoring and the generation of local anchors

A question that puzzles many urban scholars and practitioners is how to embed the activities and projects that are initiated in temporary urban programmes such as the ABIs in the local community. Many of these projects, initiatives, and networks tend to die out and become yet another tomb in the crowded “project cemetery” (Agger & Löfgren, Citation2008). As such, several urban programmes operate with “exit strategies” aimed at sustaining activities beyond their limited time frame. However, little research has been done to think about how this is carried out and what the outcomes are.

We use the notion of anchoring to describe the strategic choices that ABI officials can make with regard to (1) spatial interventions, (2) street-level interactions, and (3) resource allotment in their efforts to “build in” sustainability into their projects. We argue that the process of anchoring is about building relations and networks horizontally amongst similar and diverse group,s and vertically between the various groups and people/agencies of power. As such, the daily work that ABI officials do in order to operationalize capacity-building is very much about cultivating different forms of social capital. Furthermore, we refer to those organizational forms of networks that can serve as arenas for joint action and platforms for sustaining the ABI initiatives beyond their limited life as anchors. The notion of local anchors is not widely used in the scholarly literature. There are a few exceptions (Alonso & O’Shea, Citation2012; Clopton & Finch, Citation2011) where scholars discuss social anchor theory to point out how certain community actors can play the role of a community hub that can provide and develop local leadership and support and design delivery of local services. In comparison, the practice literature has paid more attention towards how public sector actors can collaborate with community actors and establish ongoing relationships and dialogue in order to establish “an empowered local democratic space” (Henderson, Citation2015, p. 2). However, little, if any of this work has explicitly used the term “anchor” or “anchoring”. Anchors can take different forms. In this paper we discuss three different models: (1) a partnership-based anchor, (2) a loose-network-based anchor, and (3) an association-based anchor.

A framework for developing local anchors

We argue that the social capital literature offers a useful vocabulary that can enable scholars and practitioners to talk about how joint-action capacities can be spurred or mobilized in settings with different types of networks and thereby capitals. Understanding the social capital characteristics of neighbourhoods can help design appropriate anchors so that the initiatives developed in temporary urban programmes such as ABIs might be sustained beyond their lifetimes. Just as local communities in general have certain networks and social relationships that characterize different levels of social capital, the relationships and networks in and around specific place-based projects that ABIs initiate are also unique.

As such, in order to develop anchors capable of sustaining specific projects, ABI planners need to be sensitive to this specific condition of existing social capital by asking the following questions: Who uses these spaces? Who is responsible for maintaining them? What is the nature of the relationship between these actors/groups/departments (in terms of common norms and trust)? Who are the other actors with present or future interest in these spaces? How well are these actors related to external resourceful links? The point is that the model of anchor that is developed responds to the specific social capital-related characteristics of the particular project and the space where it is located. This means that within the same neighbourhood very different models of anchors can emerge and be appropriate for sustaining different projects. We will demonstrate this later in this paper.

In order to examine how social capital can offer a useful diagnostic tool for ABIs’ efforts to develop appropriate models of anchors we propose a three-step analytical framework (see Table ): In step I, ABI initiatives should identify the given state of social capital in and around a specific place-based project, using the criteria/questions mentioned above. In step II, ABI initiatives should think about how to use, develop, and strengthen different aspects of this existing level of social capital for the purpose of anchoring. They can do this by strategically directing spatial interventions, street level interactions, and allotment of resources. Lastly, step III should involve formalization of the “anchors” by putting together the diverse actors into an organizational network capable of maintaining and sustaining specific ABI efforts after the ABI period ends.

Table 1. Using social capital as a tool for building anchors.

Different models of such networks are likely to emerge for specific projects in the same ABI community in response to differences in the state of initial conditions of social capital as well as differences in levels of the ABI’s strategic efforts to build on these initial conditions. Therefore social capital framework provides a useful diagnostic tool to identify and design the right anchors that fit the particular contexts of specific projects. In simpler terms, by addressing the different tasks in Table 1, planners can more strategically develop anchors that are most suitable and plausible for sustaining specific projects/initiatives. In the case study section we will look more into the three models of anchors and describe the reasons for and implications of the development of these different models.


In this paper we present three case studies (The Sundholm urban garden, Sæterdalsparken and Skotlands Plads), which are three specific place-based projects initiated by the Sundholm district ABI in Copenhagen, Denmark. Through these cases we demonstrate how planners may use social capital as a tool to develop different models of anchors for sustaining specific projects. Here we would like to clarify that while a few of the Sundholm district ABI planners sporadically used the language of social capital while describing their work, this paper is primarily our, i.e. the researchers’ interpretation of what social capital literature has to offer to the work of ABI practitioners, particularly related to anchoring.

The empirical foundation of the paper draws on several sources. Firstly, it builds on a qualitative study of the Sundholm district ABI and its various public space projects conducted by Parama Roy during the period of 2013–2015. Here, she interviewed 35 individuals of whom eight were professionals from the ABI, the Integrated Social Plan (ISP)Footnote2, and the Activity Centre (AC)Footnote3; nine were steering committee members, and 18 were users of the Sundholm district’s public spaces, mostly of the garden (including seven Pakistani and Turkish women and eight homeless individuals). Secondly, we draw on a study by Annika Agger that was carried out in the period between 2012–2015. This data included field observations consisting of shadowing urban regeneration leaders of seven ABIs in Copenhagen (84 h in total), supplemented with qualitative interviews with them (seven) and other staff in the ABIs (22) and participant observation at the local steering committee meetings in each of the seven ABIs (21 h). Furthermore, Annika Agger designed and conducted internal seminars with the urban leaders (24 h), where thematic discussions about inclusion, innovation, and different types of challenges where debated. We also collected data through archival research of planning documents related to Sundholm district ABI and Danish ABIs in general. Thirdly, the last source of data consists of personal experience from the third author Øystein Leonardsen. He has functioned as the head of the ABI office in Sundholm district, and has been part of many of the meetings and processes involving the three cases. Therefore he has contributed with detailed knowledge about the particular cases. We are aware such personal experience can be biased and tends to emphasize normative standpoints and personal views on certain matters, therefore we have paid particular attention to supplementing this last set of data with the data from the two other studies. This has provided us with a broad perspective on the ABI’s efforts of anchoring in Sundholm district.

Introducing Danish ABIs

In line with other Western European countries, Denmark has experienced many of the same urban challenges of segregation, concentration of social problems, and physical decay in certain neighbourhoods (Atkinson, Citation2008). In response to such challenges, ABIs were introduced in Denmark in the late 1990s with inspiration from the UK and the Netherlands (Larsen & Engberg, Citation2011). Initially known as Kvarterløft (Area Lift), these projects focused on activities that could help upgrade entire neighbourhoods (instead of previous attempts that targeted individual households). In the Kvarterløft programme, democratic experimentation was explicitly included, and this continues to be the case with the next generations of ABIs, including the current Områdefornyelse (Neighbourhood Renewal) programme.

The focus of current ABIs has moved more towards employment generation and social area integration, meaning the application of both physical improvements (of the housing estates and public areas such as parks) as well as social and cultural initiatives aimed at improving social cohesion and networks in specific areas. The projects run typically for 5–7 years, and a third of these projects are state-financed, while the rest are financed by the municipality (Jensen & Munk, Citation2007). In each ABI a steering committee is elected that represents local stakeholders, e.g. representatives from housing associations, non-government organizations, sports and cultural associations, as well as administrative representatives from the different municipal departments. Final decision-making on the strategies and projects is channelled through this local steering committee and presented to the municipal council after professional assessment in the municipal departments).

The municipality of Copenhagen has now carried out 17 ABIs since the end of the 1990s, and Sundholm district ABI is one of them. Sundholm district is a neighbourhood in the SE of Copenhagen with 11,900 residents. This area has been deteriorating over the last 15 years in its socio-economic character with increasing social problems, high levels of crime and vandalism (Unified Plan, Citation2008). Statistics from Copenhagen Municipality (2012, 2013) show that the district has a higher percentage of people from non-Western ethnic backgrounds (23%) and a higher percentage of people who are either unemployed (5%) or live on social security (15%) compared to the city average (14, 4 and 11% respectively). Thus, in 2008 the area was targeted for an ABI with a budget of around €18 million and the project ended in 2014 (Copenhagen Municipality, Citation2012, p. 30). In recognition of the area’s poor condition of public spaces and public life, the primary aim of this ABI was to improve city life in the district in a sustainable way (Sundholmsvej Områdeløft, 2009). As such, many public space projects were undertaken with the combined purpose of physically and socially improving the neighbourhood. Another similar area-based urban initiative is the ISP, which is financed by the National Building Fund and the Municipality. While ABIs invest in public spaces and local organizations/networks, ISPs are focused on the disadvantaged residents of social housing. An ISP is typically financed in 4-year cycles, where each cycle can address different thematic issues such as crime, employment, education for young people. In Sundholm district the local ISP and ABI were located in the same facilities and the employees worked closely in teams, and the volunteering citizens formed networks crossing the two initiatives, making it an integrated effort.

In the following section, we examine three specific projects of the Sundholm District ABI using the above-mentioned analytical framework to show how the existing state of social relationships/capital in each of these cases presented certain opportunities and challenges for the process of anchoring and how ABI planners contributed to anchoring by strategically attempting to strengthen existing social relationships/capital with various levels of success. Finally, we point out the resulting models of anchors and discuss their implications for the sustainability of the ABI efforts as well as the future development of social capital.

Cases of different forms of anchors in Sundholm district

Sundholm urban garden – a case of association-based anchor

The Sundholm urban garden is a community garden inside the Sundholm institutional area (see Figure ). The institution was built in the eighteenth Century to accommodate the city’s disadvantaged people, primarily the poor and the homeless (USER, Citation2012). While back then this was a fenced area where the city’s undesirable population was taken into custody (Brandt, Citation1999), today Sundholm is an open area, simultaneously housing public institutions that provide services to the homeless and other socio-economic businesses, daycare centrer, and non-profit organizations.

Figure 1 Area Map: Sundholm District in SE Copenhagen.

Figure 1 Area Map: Sundholm District in SE Copenhagen.

Diagnosing the state of social capital

The Sundholm urban garden has been built on municipality-owned and previously unmaintained land that was strewn with broken glass and garbage and used occasionally only by the homeless. While several public and private agencies (e.g. public agencies and non-profits offering different services for the homeless, a juvenile prison, an art factory) are housed in Sundholm, none of these local actors/institutions seemed to take responsibility for or had much interest in this particular piece of land. This weak state of existing social networks was further weakened by the lack of trust amongst local residents and the users of Sundholm, i.e. the homeless community. During the ABI planning process it became clear that local residents mostly perceived Sundholm and its users as “unsafe” (informants from the garden, 2014) and therefore avoided the area and the people frequenting the area. Overall, the state of social relations/networks and hence social capital in the case of the Sundholm urban garden could be described as being nearly absent. As such, Sundholm ABI recognized a need for “breaking down the physical and mental barrier” (ABI planner, 2014) between Sundholm and the surrounding neighbourhood.

Strengthening existing social capital

In order to break the barrier, the garden was built as an integrative space that would orchestrate positive meetings between “groups of citizens with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and different abilities” and that would be “a place where race or economic status is not that important” (USER Citation2012, p. 59). The rationale was to encourage more interaction amongst the various groups. ABI planners hoped that greater interaction would improve the existing social relations and sense of trust which are essential for building any sort of organizational network or collective capacity within the community. This of course presented the possibility of strengthening bonding capital between similar groups and bridging capital between diverse ones in the garden. As such, the ABI planners invested time and energy in providing platforms through which stronger social relations, thus capital, could be built. First they created a post for a social worker at the AC, who would be responsible for supervising interested homeless gardeners in the garden. Without this social worker it would be impossible to involve the homeless as an integral part of this project. They also intentionally recruited ethnic minority residents from the neighbourhood as gardeners in order to reflect the local diversity within the garden space.

In addition, ample opportunities were given to the diverse garden users to interact and possibly develop bonding and bridging capital. While on many occasions informal parties were organized for all users, including the homeless, on a weekly basis, ABI planners organized coffee meetings with refreshments (usually the homeless users were not a part of these gatherings). These meetings were informal forums for the Danish gardeners to interact with the immigrant gardeners. Therefore the garden provided an opportunity for its users to share space, work in close proximity, and share knowledge of gardening, different cuisine and different culture, for example. This played an important role in developing stronger bonds amongst similar groups and bridging the gap between diverse ones. The face-to-face interactions made the gardeners more open-minded towards people who are different and with whom they would not normally interact. One Pakistani gardener explained,

You can see here, how wonderfully she has made this fence here. She is also homeless. Like her there are many others who have done nice things here. You get to see that their minds also work. While we may sometimes think that they are homeless and addicted and cannot do anything … but that perception changes when you see them do productive things (2014).

This statement suggests that the stereotypical representation or image of a homeless person has been challenged in the garden. As people watch members of this marginalized group contribute meaningfully to their collective effort, their pre-conceived notions are changed. Indicating the strengthening relations between diverse gardeners, one of the Danish gardeners explained,

I have got many new friends through the urban garden. Today, we do not only meet there (the garden) but we do also other things together. I feel that I have become part of a community of active people, and we pop up with new ideas of what we can do together (Social Response, Citation2014 , p. 29).

Therefore, the garden has been nurturing a strong relationship amongst its users, who have not only developed a sense of ownership for the garden, but have also learnt to trust each other and work together.

Furthermore, the ABI planners have also played a crucial role in developing linking capital for the gardeners by organizing various political meetings and events and connecting the common citizens with the local decision-makers. For instance, once many local politicians were invited to come and speak with the gardeners as well as other neighbourhood residents with an intention to encourage everyone, including those who tend to remain politically inactive in terms of voting in local elections. In other instances, such events have been used more strategically. For example, in order to seek political and financial support for the AC social worker’s position beyond the ABI period, planners encouraged and guided the gardeners to invite the Mayor of Social Affairs to visit the garden (an effort that has been successful). As one of the planners involved in the process explained,

This is a very important tool, both to empower people, to show that they can actually do this, so that when we are not there anymore, they can still do this … even people who are not marginalized, are often not aware of the possibilities you have as citizens (2015).

All these efforts have contributed towards developing linking capital amongst the local citizens who now have better knowledge of who and how to reach out to fulfil local needs. Consequently, some of the gardeners interviewed suggested that these efforts have contributed towards developing their inner confidence and sense of trust in the political system. Many of these deliberate efforts in the case of Sundholm garden are due largely to the URBACT’s USERFootnote4 funds that enabled the ABI to recruit a planner particularly dedicated to overseeing the physical, and more importantly, the social development in and around the garden.

Formalizing an association-based anchor

It is largely as a result of these deliberate and well-funded efforts of the ABI that the garden is now the collective responsibility of the users, who have formed a formal association and taken up the responsibility of maintaining this community project in the absence of the ABI planners. This association, Foreningen Byhaven på Sundholm is comprised of local resident gardeners including the ethnic minority users and the AC social worker who represents the homeless users. Constituted as a traditional Danish association, every year a board is elected at the general assembly and anybody paying a small membership fee (€12 a year) can become a member. It is this association that allocates the plant boxes among the members according to a waiting list.

By becoming an association, the users of the garden have now become a legitimate organization and thus they can better communicate and negotiate with decision-makers and potential funders. Moreover, they can run for a seat in the local neighbourhood council, which gives them access to valuable connections and information. They are also able to sign contracts with other public or private institutions and speak with more weight in the media. Now that the organization is recognized as the legal user of the garden, the municipality has assigned the land to the garden, and a formal tenant lease is about to be set up between the AC and the municipality. As such, the land will remain available to the gardeners without any cost. While the maintenance cost of the garden is not very high, it is now the association’s responsibility to apply for funds from the local council or other public and private sources to continue the work and initiate new projects. Thus, the Sundholm garden is now rooted in the local community by this citizen-based non-profit association, an organizational network that is largely a result of the ABI’s deliberate efforts toward anchoring or building collective capacity.

Sæterdalsparken – a case of partnership-based “anchor”

Diagnosing the state of social capital

Another project undertaken by Sundholm district ABI was that of renewing Sæterdalsparken (see Figure ). Prior to the renewal, the park had a fenced-off football field and a worn-out play area. These were primarily used by ethnic minority families with children and young immigrant boys. The area was (and still to some extent is) considered as unsafe, especially towards the evening when the immigrant boys hang out in the park. More importantly, the state of local social relations was particularly strained due to a lack of social cohesion and underlying ethnic tensions. Bjødstrup’s (Citation2014) survey with users of Sæterdalsparken is quite suggestive of this condition. While one of her elderly Danish respondents commented,

Amager has always been a small society in itself. Since the immigrants have come it has changed (...) It has become worse. Now they stand in big groups. There has been knife stabbing in Urban Planen. We used to have a lot of garden parties – now they come with knives and pistols, so people don’t feel like doing that anymore (Bjødstrup, Citation2014, p. 35)

Another respondent, an immigrant boy suggested, “They hate us. We hate Sundholm (...) They don’t talk with us. They look strangely at us because they think we will do all kinds of stuff” (Bjødstrup, Citation2014, p. 37). This state of local relations is an important indicator of the weak level of social capital, especially bridging capital in the area around Sæterdalsparken. This undoubtedly presented a major challenge for the ABI’s efforts to anchor the project within the local community. This challenge was further problematized by the lack of any strongly interested or resourceful actor/institution that could act as the bracing capital and become the network hub or the leading agency within the anchor – taking over future responsibility for the park.

Strengthening existing social capital

During the renewal process the football field was renovated with blue asphalt and the play area was improved with new play facilities, greenery, and benches in order to attract more local users. Importantly, the fence around the football field was removed and ABI planners hoped that greater visibility would provide better opportunities for positive interaction between strangers and instil a sense of safety (Bjødstrup, Citation2014). While the goal in Sæterdalsparken was similar to the urban garden in Sundholm in terms of creating a space for positive interaction amongst diverse groups, achieving this goal at Sæterdalsparken has been more difficult. Although diverse groups use the park at different times of the day, there is little interaction, let alone collaboration amongst these individuals or groups, to enable them to build collective capacity and to take responsibility for the park as has been possible in the case of Sundholm garden. Furthermore, as one of the ABI planners explained, “The Integrated Social Programme and ABI tried to make a lot of events, art projects, networking projects, but the grown up never showed up” (2015) making it particularly challenging to build social relations/networks in the area. In fact, some of the adjacent public housing associations disapproved of the park renewal in view of the possibility of excessive noise and went as far as putting up their own fence in order to distance themselves from the project.

The weak state of trust amongst different ethnic groups and hence weak bridging social capital led to some undesirable incidents once the park was renewed. One steering committee member of the ABI explained,

I think the problem was that we didn’t involve people enough … so some kids (the ethnic minority youngsters) thought it would be fun to do vandalism, so they put an old moped in the field and burnt it … they thought of it as foreign space, but it was actually for them (2014).

This incident partly reflects the obvious challenge that ABI practitioners may face when doing something in an area characterized by low social/ethnic cohesion. The above-mentioned incident made the planners recognize the importance of fostering a sense of acceptance and ownership of the space amongst all locals, including ethnic minorities. As such, they strategically involved local kids to beautify the park. One of the steering committee members living across the park explained,

What we did, we involved the kids and we talked with some artists and we had the kids do a lot of art work on the sidewall. I think after that the vandalism stopped. I mean all those local kids have brothers or sisters or a cousin or a friend, so by involving the family we got others involved. That’s why I think it worked. We have had vandalism after that, but not to the same degree (2014).

While this and similar efforts have enabled ABI planners to reduce the explicit expressions of ethnic tensions in the area, building strong bridging capital and collective capacity has been relatively difficult. In the end, planners “saw that no actors were able to take on the responsibility” and suggested that “If there was no social organization for that place it would be a battle ground of the neighbourhood” and therefore they needed to either “find a social organization that works” or “clean up” i.e. remove the park all together (ABI planner, 2015). Finally, the ABI planners realized that under these circumstances only a partnership-based anchor could possibly work by explicitly laying out the duties of each institution/group within the anchor.

Formalizing a partnership-based anchor

Sæterdalsparken partnership anchor thus consists of members of local schools, daycare centres, and sports clubs, and it is facilitated by two local ISPs (Amagerbro and Partnerskabet Urbanplanen). In the absence of any willing or committed participants, ABI officials guided the process of writing up a formal partnership contract that explicitly defines the role and duties of each partner. Given the ISPs’ permanency (unlike ABIs), their experience of working with local (often minority) communities, and their links with the various public departments, they are particularly well-suited for coordinating the partnership. These ISPs therefore have the potential to act as the important bracing capital absolutely essential for any model of anchor to work in an area of such weak social capital. Furthermore, due to the difficulty of fostering bridging and linking capital within this particular area (partly because of the state of low social capital and partly because fostering interaction and cooperation through public spaces and public activities is a time-consuming agenda), having the two ISPs on board seemed to be an effective way of entrusting this partnership with important linking capital.

Skotlands Plads – a case of a network-based anchor

Diagnosing initial state of social capital

Skotlands Plads is one of the largest public space projects undertaken by Sundholm district ABI (see Figure ). Before the renewal the park had a closed and worn-out appearance with bushes and trees surrounding the benches and the playground area and a fenced-off football field. Local area residents complained that the park was unsafe and that “dodgy people sat and drank way too much” (Bjødstrup, Citation2014, p. 48). One of the ABI planners explained that

People were not invited in … because of the high hedges it was a place for drug dealing. We were told that it was also a place for dog fights. We could however never confirm it … The drug dealing was obvious, and in 2012 the play hut and a small shed was burned (2015).

However, unlike the area around Sæterdalsparken, here there was no obvious socio-cultural tension around this space. At the same time, like Sæterdalsparken, there was an absence of agencies/groups showing active interest in the park, at least towards the beginning of the ABI.

Strengthening existing social capital

Through ABI, the park was renewed completely and now it is a well-used park space with facilities for everyone. The goal here was to transform Skotlands Plads to a place where people of all ages “feel invited” and “engaged” (ABI planner, 2014). As such, the park was physically transformed to include a variety of facilities for people of different ages and with different interests (e.g. garden spaces, children’s playground, barbecue grills). In the beginning it was a challenge to involve local actors. While ABI officials managed to contact residents from the four social housing associations located to the north of the park through ISP, they did not have contact with any of the private and co-operative housing or the nearby Købnerkirken Church. Therefore, one ABI planner explained, “in the beginning it was very much (about) raising awareness and knocking on doors” (2015). Eventually, the church emerged as one of the primary actors in the area, remaining closely involved in presenting their vision of the future of the park and the Sundholm district ABI more generally. This was largely because the church (which was on the verge of being closed down due to reduced membership) found it beneficial to take part in the ABI’s efforts for the sake of doing something for the community” right outside their door and get “better accepted” by the community (Church representative, 2014).

Throughout the ABI process at Skotlands Plads, efforts were directed towards creating and sustaining a social life in the park by organizing parties, flea markets, games and allowing gardening, for example. These activities were organized in order to provide the park users with platforms of interaction and hence to develop a sense of trust and respect amongst similar and diverse groups possibly strengthening bonding and bridging social capital amongst the local residents. While such interactions could potentially be translated into new and resourceful networks/associations that are capable of sustaining projects in the long run, this has not happened in this case. Instead the Købnerkirken Church remained the primary actor coordinating and taking much of the responsibility for social life at Skotlands Plads.

Formalizing a loose-network-based anchor

As such, here the anchoring model that has emerged is one of a loose network composed of multiple actors (four social housing associations and local sports clubs, whose participation is coordinated by the ISP, and the church). The church here plays a dominant role within this network primarily because they have the resources and the interest to take responsibility for coordinating social activities in Skotlands Plads. As such, the church acts as the important bracing capital or the network hub without which the anchor in Skotlands Plads is likely to fall apart.


These three cases highlight how the initial state of social relations/networks, indicative of the level of social capital, and the deliberate efforts of ABI planners to strengthen and transform these social relations, shape the emerging models of anchors in different contexts (see Table ). While in all three cases the initial state of social capital was weak, at Sæterdalsparken the condition was particularly problematic with explicit ethnic tensions and hence weak bridging capital. Therefore, despite deliberate efforts to involve locals, particularly after initial incidents of vandalism at the park, the efforts of bridging the differences achieved limited success. In the end, in the absence of any strongly active and interested agency, ABI officials had to push local institutions such as schools and day care centres to sign a written contract and form a partnership-based anchor that took responsibility for maintaining the social life at Sæterdalsparken with the ISP as the lead agency. While the ISP did not readily show an interest in contributing to the anchor for Sæterdalsparken, they definitely have the potential to offer important linking capital and to act as the bracing capital within this anchor.

Table 2. Analysing the role of social capital in building anchors-comparing the three models of anchors in Sundholm.

At Skotlands Plads, despite the absence of any explicit social or ethnic tensions, there seemed to be few active or interested agencies/individuals willing to accept any responsibility for the park. However, relatively early in the planning process, a local church stepped forward and became intricately involved in the park’s renewal process. ABI planners recognized the importance of this church as potential bracing capital and worked closely with the church representative on all aspects of its efforts in Skotlands Plads. During this process the church was also linked to important sources of power and knowledge. The ABI’s efforts to strengthen existing levels of social capital through multiple event organization at Skotlands Plads have had limited success in encouraging others to become active partners and/or to develop collective capacity to maintain the park’s social life. As such, under the leadership of the church a loose network-based anchor has emerged in this case, with the ISP representing the nearby housing associations and presenting additional linking capital within this network.

Compared to these two cases, Sundholm urban garden may be described as a particularly strong case of anchoring. Here ABI officials’ deliberate and well-funded efforts to build local social capital culminated in the creation of a formal citizen-based association. Despite the initial state of weak (nearly absent) social capital, the ABI’s explicit efforts to build strong relations amongst the diverse users of the garden and linking them with higher sources of power was crucial for developing the trust, confidence, and hence the joint-action capacity of the garden users. It is also noteworthy that, unlike the other two cases, here most of the users were individuals interested in gardening (and not established institutions/agencies with diverse interests such as schools, social housing associations, church) and hence were more willing to come together to form an association for the purpose of this collective interest. Therefore, instead of any single network hub or bracing capital, this association-based anchor in Sundholm garden is an example of the collective capacity of a diverse group of common citizens endowed with strong bonding, bridging and linking capital via the ABI’s efforts to anchor.

What we see from these three different cases, located within a few hundred metres of each other is that the social networks around them differ, and thereby the social potential of these networks to work together in the interest of the local neighbourhood/community also differ –leading to three models of anchors. However, this is not to say that other forms of anchors could not have developed in these local contexts. Different and more targeted efforts by the ABI could have led to different results. Acknowledging that these three models only represent three possibilities, our main purpose is to highlight that ABI practitioners can and should act more strategically to develop particular models of anchors based on (1) the initial resources, i.e. levels of social capital they have at their disposal, and (2) the results of their own efforts to strengthen or transform such social capital.

In their effort to choose appropriate models of anchors for specific projects, ABI practitioners need to be aware of the implications of these models for future social relations within and beyond these anchors. As such, in the following section we briefly discuss the potential implications for the three models of anchors. In Sæterdalsparken the anchoring model ended up in a formal partnership among professional actors. The advantage of this model is that it has the potential to strengthen bonding and bridging social capital among the participating partners with diverse interests. Furthermore, the involvement of ISP as a lead agency offers strong linking and bracing capital for the partnership. However, such capital is unlikely to be transferred to non-participants or the community at large. Overall partnership-based anchors therefore tend to be closed circuits that make it difficult for new actors to participate. There is no election and no open platform. The daily users of the park are not by default invited to participate in the social production of the space. Although in Sundholm district ABI the partnership amongst professionals developed due to local circumstances, ABIs may choose to promote this model when they have limited resources to engage large groups of common citizens from different socio-cultural backgrounds. In this sense a partnership can be a more cost-effective model of anchoring.

In Skotlands Plads a loose-network-based anchor developed with a local church as the facilitator of this network. The advantage of this sort of model is that bridging social capital can be strengthened amongst local actors and their collaboration has the potential to generate new ideas and create synergy among them. Moreover, there is a degree of openness in this model where other local actors are welcome to join in. On the other hand, this loose structure is very dependent on the actors’ ability to stay in contact, and in dialogue, and is overly dependent on the commitment of the bracing capital/network hub (in this case the church) for its sustainability. The lack of a formal forum also weakens the possibility to take decisions. This could be a threat to the social life in the park where bonding social capital may develop within groups at the expense of bridging capital across groups.

The Sundholm urban garden represents the third and more formal anchoring model in the form of an association. By virtue of working together in this association, existing bonding and bridging capital amongst similar and dissimilar groups respectively, is further strengthened. Such capital is also relatively easily transferred to the community, as the association and garden are open to anyone interested in gardening and willing to pay a small fee. Furthermore, the steering board of the association provides a great deal of linking social capital due to its engagement with the local neighbourhood cooperation forum, Samarbejds Forum Sundholm. This knowledge of the implications of the different models is important for ABI planners to make informed decisions on what sort of organizational network might be feasible and appropriate for specific projects. Depending on their overall goal, the initial state of social capital resource they have, the time and energy they can spend on strengthening these resources and the results of these efforts, ABIs can formalize different models of anchors that suit the needs of specific projects.

Conclusion: bringing social capital to the centre of area-based initiatives

In this paper we have argued that anchoring projects is an often overlooked aspect in the scholarly literature on ABIs. But focusing on the phase of “implementation” and “handing over” many of the activities that are initiated through the ABIs is central in order to secure better use of public spending. In practice many projects tend to die out when ABIs leave the area and fragile networks tend to dissolve when they are not supported by professionals. Our case studies demonstrate that ABI practitioners can play an important role in sustaining local efforts through a deliberate process of anchoring. More importantly, we have shown that a social capital framework offers a strategic diagnostic/analytical tool for this process. By engaging with different conceptualizations of social capital, urban planners can take into account and cultivate further various kinds of social relations, networks, and connections within particular local settings, and thus form appropriate models of anchors most suitable for such specific contexts.

In particular, we have shown how practitioners can benefit from using the three-step framework we propose, to lay out the details of (1) the resources (in terms of social capital) they have at their disposal, (2) the strategies they can use to strengthen these resources (e.g. through spatial interventions), and finally (3) to think about what models of anchors may be formed based on the outcomes of the first two steps. Hence, we would like to conclude by emphasizing the value of thinking through the lens of social capital in ABIs in particular, and urban policy work more generally, so that social capital is brought to the centre of the everyday work that urban practitioners do.

Furthermore, it is crucial to acknowledge that these case studies offer important lessons for practitioners working far beyond the Danish context. This paper offers a new vocabulary of “anchors” (network-based; partnership-based; association-based), that helps to recognize that different forms of such anchors may exist and that one form may work more effectively within a specific local context than another. Therefore our study demonstrates that long-term sustainability of ABIs’ work depends on planners’ deliberate efforts towards developing appropriate anchors and for that it is important to take into account the local context. As such, one of the primary tasks of urban practitioners working with ABIs within and beyond the Danish context, must involve “reading” the places and networks associated with the different projects within area-based efforts.

This paper further contributes to scholarly literature on ABIs, particularly with respect to anchoring, by pointing towards extremely relevant future research directions. First, by specifying some forms of anchors, this work highlights the need to further research what other possible forms of anchors may fit and be appropriate in various socio-political settings. Secondly, by suggesting some possible implications of specific anchors for future development of social capital (within the anchors as well as the community more generally) this paper highlights the need to conduct more thorough research on this relationship.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Funding information

Annika Agger’s empirical research was funded by The Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) grant number: 421-2011-1433 and was part of the research project “Contested Administration – Conflict Resolution and the Improvement of Democracy” (2011–2015). The study reported in Parama Roy’s empirical research was funded by the Sundholm District Urban Renewal Office and the EU-funded URBACT-USER programme.

Notes on contributors

Annika Agger, PhD, is Associate Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Social Sciences and Business, at Roskilde University in Denmark. Her research and teaching interests include urban governance, co-production, conflict resolution and assessment of democratic performance. She has written articles and contributed to books on how to create institutional settings for public deliberations and on how urban practitioners working in the interface between public institutions and civil society can contribute to make positive changes. Her work has been published in peer reviewed journals such as Planning Theory, European Planning Studies, Local Environment, and Town Planning Review.

Parama Roy is an urban environmental geographer with research interest in the socio-spatial implications of planning in contemporary cities. She completed her PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in 2008. While presently she is a visiting researcher at the Binghamton University (State University of New York), she has worked as an Assistant Professor of Geography at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and at the University of Copenhagen. Her work on collaborative planning, community gardening and urban greening has been published in peer reviewed journals such as Urban Affairs Review, Geoforum, Space and Polity and Cities.

Øystein Leonardsen is an urban-environmental planner who has worked with urban and regional planning since the end of the 1980s. He was Head of the Secretariat of the ABI Sundholm in Copenhagen, Denmark 2008–2015 and is today working as a business district manager in the ABI Sydhavnen, also in Copenhagen. Alongside his practical career, Øystein Leonardsen has been a teacher in logistics (Niels Brock), and since 2010 been an external lecturer at Roskilde University in Denmark.


We would like to thank the editors and the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback and insightful comments throughout the process of revising this paper.


1. See for example the City Challenge, Single Regeneration Budget and New Deal for Communities initiated in England; Urban Partnerships and Priority Partnership Areas in Scotland; the German Soziale Stadt; the Dutch Grote-Stedenbeleid; the Danish Kvarterloft.

2. ISP is a place-based social intervention programme targeting public housing estates in Denmark.

3. AC is one of the public social institutions for the homeless.

4. URBACT’s USER is a European Regional Development Fund sponsored programme that aims to develop more inclusive methods of public space planning, use, and maintenance (http://urbact.eu/user).


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