Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

< Back to '17th March 2021' briefing

March 16, 2021

Palaces for People

In 1995, a lethal heat wave hit Chicago. Two similarly disadvantaged neighbourhoods, adjacent to each other, fared very differently.  Ten times the number of elderly residents in one neighbourhood died compared to the other. Subsequent research pinpointed the critical factor to be high levels of interpersonal contact that routinely occurred in the neighbourhood with less deaths. That contact occurred because of what the sociologist Klinenberg calls ‘social infrastructure’. Libraries, pocket parks, pavements – public spaces of all kinds. And not just the quantity but the quality of its design. We know this but occasionally it’s worth reminding ourselves of it.

Pete Buttigieg

This time of year, my wooden desktop in the Office of the Mayor looks very similar to my computer desktop: covered in spreadsheets. It’s budget season in South Bend, Ind. — the annual reckoning. Priorities jostle against one another, and sometimes it feels as if we must choose between investing in places (fire stations, streetscapes) and investing in people (after-school programs, job training). We do some of both, of course, but the process forces us to balance two concepts of what a city is: a place and a population.

In “Palaces for the People,” Eric Klinenberg offers a new perspective on what people and places have to do with each other, by looking at the social side of our physical spaces. He is not the first to use the term “social infrastructure,” but he gives it a new and useful definition as “the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops,” whether, that is, human connection and relationships are fostered. Then he presents examples intended to prove that social infrastructure represents the key to safety and prosperity in 21st-century urban America.

Klinenberg is an N.Y.U. sociologist best known recently as Aziz Ansari’s co-author for “Modern Romance,” in which he helped the comedian apply social science tools to better understand dating. Here, he begins with questions he first addressed in an earlier book on a lethal heat wave that struck Chicago in 1995. He asked how two adjacent poor neighborhoods on the South Side, demographically similar and presumably equally vulnerable, could fare so differently in the disaster. Why did elderly victims in the Englewood neighborhood lose their lives at 10 times the rate of those in Auburn Gresham?

The explanation had to do with social capital, the amount of interpersonal contact that exists in a community. In the neighborhood with fewer fatalities, people checked on one another and knew where to go for help; in the other, social isolation was the norm, with residents more often left to fend for themselves, even to perish in sweltering housing units. Crucially, these were not cultural or economic differences, but rather had to do with things like the density of shops and the vacancy rate along streets, which either helped or hurt people get to know one another in their communities.

The new book’s exploration of this reality begins in the basement of a library in a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood, where an Xbox-based bowling competition pits local seniors against rival teams from a dozen library branches across the borough. The example of a virtual bowling league has particular poetic resonance two decades after Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, raised fears of societal collapse in his study “Bowling Alone.” Where Putnam charted the decline of American communal participation through shrinking bowling league membership, Klinenberg’s basement of virtual bowlers illustrates how technology might actually enhance our social fabric — provided there are supportive spaces. Given what we have learned about the health impacts of social isolation among the elderly, lives may depend on creating more such opportunities.

Klinenberg finds in libraries “the textbook example of social infrastructure in action,” a shared space where everyone from schoolchildren doing homework to the video-gaming elderly can get to know one another better. For him, the presence of destitute or mentally ill visitors is a feature, not a bug, of libraries, because it requires people to confront radical differences in a shared space.

Klinenberg extends the idea of social infrastructure to grade schools, college campuses, public housing, private apartment buildings, coffee shops, sidewalks, pocket parks, churches, murals, even flood-management projects in Singapore and public pools in Iceland. Pretty much any space that can affect the social fabric is within the author’s scope. Here, social infrastructure is not a subset of what we call “infrastructure” but something broader, which makes his project ambitious but also perhaps too vague: After all, if it could include virtually all public and many private or even virtual spaces, is the category even useful?

It is, especially when Klinenberg discusses social infrastructure in terms of quality, not just quantity. While some of his examples simply reinforce the inarguable fact that we need more of these resources (more libraries! more gyms! more gardens!), his most illuminating cases gauge what happens in spaces whose designs are either socially helpful or harmful. Social infrastructure becomes less a thing to maximize than a lens that communities and policymakers should apply to every routine decision about physical investment: Do the features of this proposed school, park or sewer system tend to help human beings to form connections?

In case after case, we learn how socially-minded design matters. A vaunted housing project built in 1950s St. Louis quickly became a nightmare of crime and vandalism; a smaller, adjacent complex remained relatively free of trouble because its design promoted “informal surveillance” and care of common spaces by neighbors. The reconfiguration of large urban schools into smaller, more manageable ones now shows promise in boosting graduation rates in New York — partly because this allows parents, students and teachers to form a community in which problems are addressed informally before they can disrupt learning.

Meanwhile, much of our built environment contains negative or “exclusive social infrastructure,” including gated communities in the United States and South Africa, and college fraternities, which Klinenberg condemns categorically based on their association with substance abuse and sexual assault. (The construction of a massive wall, unsurprisingly, is an example of public investment that is not conducive to social infrastructure.)

Much of the book’s most interesting content has to do with climate security. From the informal network of Houston churches that kicked into gear after Hurricane Harvey, to the unlikely rise of the Rockaway Beach Surf Club in New York as a vital hub of recovery after Hurricane Sandy, we see how the right kind of social infrastructure can aid struggling communities and even save lives by connecting people during and after disasters. As Klinenberg observes, “when hard infrastructure fails … it’s the softer, social infrastructure that determines our fate.”

Klinenberg’s approach even lets him apply appealing nuance to precincts of our social life that have become objects of simplistic head-shaking and finger-wagging. When it comes to social media, for example, he takes a look at online communities, especially for young people, and pointedly suggests that teenagers turn to the digital realm largely because they have little alternative. Modern parenting norms make it less likely they will be allowed to physically move around their neighborhoods and communities. When unable to use traditional spaces like streets or parks, young people have no choice but to rely on the internet as their primary social infrastructure. It’s a point that should invite introspection among parents who require their children to remain within sight, then scold them for spending too much time looking at screens.

“Palaces for the People” reads more like a succession of case studies than a comprehensive account of what social infrastructure is, so those looking for a theoretical framework may be disappointed. But anyone interested in cities will find this book an engaging survey that trains you to view any shared physical system as, among other things, a kind of social network. After finishing it, I started asking how ordinary features of my city, from streetlights to flowerpots, might affect the greater well-being of residents. Physically robust infrastructure is not enough if it fails to foster a healthy community; ultimately, all infrastructure is social.

How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life
By Eric Klinenberg