Study objective - To determine the levels of participation in social and civic community life in a metropolitan region, and to assess differential levels of participation according to demographic, socioeonomic and health status. To contribute to policy debates on community participation, social capital and health using these empirical data. Design - Cross sectional, postal, self completed survey on health and participation. Setting - Random sample of the population from the western suburbs of Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, a population of approximately 210,000. Participants - 2542 respondents from a sample of 4000 people aged 18 years and over who were registered on the electoral roll. Main results - The response rate to the survey was 63.6% (n = 2542). Six indices of participation, on range of social and civic activities, with a number of items in each, were created. Levels of participation were highest in the informal social activities index (46.7-83.7% for individual items), and lowest in the index of civic activities of a collective nature (2.4-5.9% for individual items). Low levels of involvement in social and civic activities were reported more frequently by people of low income and low education levels. Conclusions - Levels of participation in social and civic community life in an urban setting are significantly influenced by individual socioeconomic status, health and other demographic characteristics. An understanding of the pattern of participation is important to inform social and health policy making. Increasing levels of participation will reduce social exclusion and is likely to improve the overall quality of community life.