This essay analyzes the concept of social capital and the insights offered by this approach for studying the nature and role of civil society in decision-making processes. To this end it examines some recent experiences of governance at the local level in order to highlight the new relevance of civil society for local development policies. The essay is organized into five parts. It starts from an analysis of the two main interpretative approaches to the concept of social capital: the relational and cultural approaches. It then moves on to describing some recent instances of local level governance - the so-called "territorial pacts" ("patti territoriali") and "strategic urban plans" ("piani strategici urbani") - in which civil society's role is particularly prominent. It highlights how, depending on the particular situation, different configurations (of relations) between public and private actors emerge and how different modes of democratic participation are thus enacted. It then puts into due relief the crucial role played by institutional actors in these innovative governance patterns, which differ from traditional modes of political participation. Lastly, it concludes by providing some methodological suggestions on the most appropriate way for utilizing the concept of social capital in empirical analyses on the role of civil society in the new models of governance.