Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg
The idea of social infrastructure is not an entirely new idea, but it is an idea that provides the central thesis for NYU Sociologist, Eric Klinenberg’s, new book.
The book references a wealth of research and data to illustrate the value of and necessity for strong connected communities which contribute to personal health – physical and mental – resource allocation, climate adaptability, government, and just about every other facet of the human experience.
Klinenberg’s arguments for strong connected communities are established early in the book by comparing death rates and suffering in Chicago neighborhoods as a result of the 1995 heat wave. The author suggests that the initial data, which supported a dichotomy based on relative wealth, was insufficient, and with deeper analysis showed that despite levels of wealth or poverty, neighborhoods with stronger community connectors fared much better in the heat wave than those with higher instances of social isolation.
The path forward that Klinenberg offers is built around investing in a range of “social infrastructure”. A main focal point of the book, and in fact where the title is derived, is the value of libraries as connectors. Especially, as we live in a time where class divisions are more and more stark, libraries can provide an important democratizing effect, giving access to services, education, space, and even in some cases temporary shelter.
The operative, however is “can”. It is not a given that a library, just in so much as being a library will provide the valuable social opportunities and community connections that the author argues for. Programming, design, access and of course funding are all essential for a library to achieve its function and support communities in the way that they are needed to. More on this in a minute.
The author explores other important opportunities for creating social bonds and how important design, programming and policy play a role in their respective success. For example, schools in walkable neighborhoods with entrances that parents bring their children to and pick them up from, in contrast to the car-based drop off at the curb and get out of the way for the next car, provide much greater opportunities for families to meet and connect, which not surprisingly creates an entirely different support system, not only for the student, but for the parents, and the whole community. The impact on a child’s education, as well as their likely delinquency, and lasting friendships, though obvious, are also well documented.
Senior living communities, grocery stores, parks, churches, farmer’s markets and so many other places and organizations provide the tools to bring us together and make us stronger, healthier, kinder, more sustainable and even happier. But in every case the tools must be employed properly and thoughtfully. Only with a constant awareness of how people interact with each other, will we be able to design our cities to serve our collective and individual needs. Yes, this is the part of the post where we once again, stop and raise our glasses to Jane Jacobs
In many cases, what is required is not special or new social infrastructure, separate from existing infrastructure, but an understanding of how our existing and necessary infrastructure projects can be used to best support our social connections. A convenient example of this idea applied here in Santa Cruz can be found in the great work of the Coastal Watershed Council. In the middle of the 20th century when most mistakes in American city building were being made, Santa Cruz was shoring up walls around the San Lorenzo River. This important infrastructure was necessary to protect our Downtown from the occasional but inevitable waters raging down from the mountains. While this infrastructure was important to separate the river from Downtown, it could be argued that it also did a bit to build separations within the community – or at least, it did nothing to bring us together. However, through; programming, education, events and some physical amendments, the CWC has been working to transform the river levee and surrounding parks and make them not only infrastructure, but social infrastructure. By bringing people together at the river, the Watershed Council is building support for the preservation and enhancement of this existing extraordinary and vital community resource. The key is bringing people together, and the Santa Cruz Riverwalk provides ample, though challenging opportunities to do so.
In the years, and even months to come our community will be faced with many new challenges and no shortage of very difficult decisions that will require lots of thought, compassion, debate and finally investment. In each case, we have an opportunity to consider the social opportunities, how each project will either bring us together, or drive us apart.
While we are exploring how we should best spend the more than $10 million dollars coming into the county to address homelessness, while we are looking how to invest in transit and mobility, while we develop the land surrounding the river and while we try, like so many other communities are trying, to address the crisis of housing, and quickly and thoughtfully find housing for everyone, we need to not lose sight of the neighborhood. That may sound like a NIMBY statement, but quite the contrary. What is meant is that we must think about building new housing, not just from the perspective of building new units, but with the intention of building neighborhoods that bring people together. Neighborhoods that are safe and walkable and connected and create positive frictions between people (not in their cars). Neighborhoods that, through design, are real communities, and not just a collection of housing units with no relationship to each other or their surrounding ecosystems.
Andrew Carnegie deemed the free public library as “Palaces for the People”. he is quoted as saying “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people.” The needs of the people have changed tremendously in the century since those words were first said. Libraries too, have evolved with the needs of people. There are many great examples of the services and benefits that libraries provide in Klinenberg’s book. Here in Santa Cruz, few are fully familiar with the depth and breadth of services that our humble downtown branch is still able to offer.
We are about to embark on an important task in designing a new Downtown branch library. It is important for all involved in the project to understand the role of the library in building community, supporting social connections, providing resources for all, and ultimately bringing us together. It is through a combination of programming, proximity, accessibility and perhaps especially, design, that the new library will be successful.
In summary, Eric Kinenberg’s, book is a great primer for the work that lies ahead in 2019. As our Downtown is changing, evolving and adapting, the Downtown Association of Santa Cruz will keep asking how we can help bring people together.