A Little Social Infrastructure Goes a Long Way

Ever been tested for new glasses at an optometrist’s office.? With your eyes pressed against some large and complicated viewer, one is asked to read ever smaller lines of letters, usually shuttering between two settings: “Which is sharper, the first or the second?” When the prescription is right, when the optometrist is satisfied, all the letters in the chart, even the small tiny ones, are legible. It’s a moment of clarity, of relief, and of agency. You know that going forward, you’re going to be able to see things clearly.

Strange as it may sound, I had a somewhat similar experience reading Eric Klineberg’s Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. Many observations, some focused and sharp, and others cloudy and obscure, were somehow presented and rendered with ever-increasing clarity. They were organized, too, on the same page and the same chart, providing a sense of coherence. While the information in the book was not all necessarily new, it now made sense and connected with other topics. In brief, I began to see more and to do so with greater clarity. It’s a heck of a good book.

Klineberg is a sociologist, researcher, and writer for the popular press. Currently the Helen Gould Shepard Professor in Social Science at New York University, he’s also the Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge. Klineberg’s scholarship is not meant for dusty library shelves. He is drawn to actionable issues, topics that affect the lives of many directly.

Palaces for the People opens with a discussion of a 1995 heat wave in Chicago that killed many residents, significantly more than Hurricane Sandy or even the Great Chicago Fire. Why did this happen? It’s the subject of an earlier book by Klineberg, whose findings emphasized the importance of community. Local conditions mattered greatly in how people dealt with stress and challenges, often being the difference between life and death. Most importantly, some of these local conditions – which Klineberg defined as social infrastructure – turn out to have a bigger impact on mortality during the crisis than wealth. Social infrastructure is a description of the places and organizations that shape human interactions. Strong social infrastructure is an underappreciated key to health people and communities.

Klineberg emphasizes that social infrastructure is not social capital. It’s about relationships, social connections, values, practice and trust. As his academic career took off, the study of social infrastructure became a recurring theme and question of his research. The more he studied it, the more its impact on public health, politics, and social cohesion became apparent. Palaces for the People is an effort to elevate the awareness and understanding of social infrastructure, which to Klineberg’s thinking includes public institutions (schools, playground, parks, pools, sidewalks, community gardens, green spaces that are accessible), community organizations (churches, civic groups), and commercial establishments that provide third spaces for people to gather (think of cafes, barbershops, bookstores that offer talks). When social infrastructure is strong and working well, people have connections with each other. There is a sense of belonging. Health improves. Stress decreases, as does crime. People live longer and are happier.

Interestingly, social infrastructure that is designed for efficiency and speedy transactions often work against social cohesion and the development of needed interpersonal relationships. This realization runs counter to many of the tenets of modern design. However, it is possible to still imagine, and design, with both effectiveness and social infrastructure in mind. Klineberg notes that these kinds of projects often have greater economic benefit, direct and indirect. Think of Boston’s Big Dig as an example. Or the benefits of shared public spaces which often do not have a clearly defined single purpose.

Chapter one examines public libraries, starting with a close look at the impact on the community of the New Lots public library in East New York, Brooklyn. The library brings people together for many activities beyond reading and traditional activities. Think bowling teams and computers, among many other activities. People of different ages and backgrounds visit public libraries, something that is often missed. Those sorts of opportunities and loose ties are essential to healthy communities. The second chapter is about public housing, most notably, the failures of major public housing developments constructed after World War II. Many of these designs gave occupants the opportunity to have safe and comfortable homes but without any influence or ownership of public spaces. These high-rises lacked shared community spaces, making neighbor-to-neighbor connections extremely difficult. Klineberg riffs on the “broken windows” theory of crime, placing it in the context of social infrastructure. Vacant properties, it turns out, highly correlate with increases in crime. So, too, do gated communities, which may help give a sense of safety within the walls yet tend to exacerbate crime outside of the walls. Throughout the book, Klineberg skillfully mixes scholarly research with history, policy, and on the ground observation. He talks with people on the ground, as a journalist might. It is accessible and fascinating writing.

Schools are the focus on chapter three. Klineberg’s experiences, as a parent as well as a researcher, highlight some of the underappreciated features essential to a welcoming and effective school. Are parent to parent interactions encouraged? Or is the drop off area for students transactional and impersonal? Do spaces bring students together? Or is organized with individually functionality as its priority? The chapter reframes the big school v. small school debate as well, underscoring that it is not size that makes for good learning; it is how students learn.

I found the short section on college architecture interesting, but insufficient for those who work in academia and want to increase academic social infrastructure. Klineberg’s attention is primarily on elite baccalaureate institutions – the Oxbridge quads and American Greek life rows – not the broad swath of public institutions that dot America. He investigates the University of Chicago and Theaster Gates, but not the University of Illinois at Chicago. Campus design and practice is linked to technology. Palaces for the People was written before covid, so Klineberg’s looks at ed tech and MOOCs reads as somewhat dated.

The fourth chapter tackles a different issue, public health, through the lens of social infrastructure. Klineberg looks at different approaches to drug use and opioid deaths, and then healthy food in impoverished areas. He is rightly excited about urban agricultural initiatives, from community gardens to parks to more structured plans. Research on these initiatives yields all manner of fascinating information. For example, walking by untreated vacant lots causes stress. It is measurable. Want a healthier population? Clean up the dumps and untreated spaces. Along like lines, children who play together in safe environments are more civically engaged than those who do not.

Klineberg’s penultimate chapter addresses politics and social cohesion through clubs, groups, and other features of social infrastructure. His eye is international, historical, and local. Public swimming pools are a helpful lens, too, and Klineberg’s high-level history of when, where and how public swimming was supported is a stand-in for public commitment to all members of a community. Climate change and corresponding disasters is the theme for the last chapter. How do communities plan, address and respond? The conclusion takes some well-aimed critiques at social media, gentrification and the current costs of capitalism’s inequality. Klineberg showcases some efforts by communities and organizations to bring people together, to invest in social infrastructure. It makes for healthier communities, families and people.

I very much believe that the concept of social infrastructure is applicable to many different organizations, situations and setting. In particular, I see it as vitally important to the institutions of higher education that aspire to being anchors in their communities. Deeply considering the concepts and ideas of social infrastructure offers a powerful lens to think through all manner of decisions, well beyond architecture and furniture. We can consider who, how and why our institutions of higher learning bring people together, how they foster understanding and trust.

What Klineberg does not offer beyond the concept are the tools, or even suggestions as to how to create the tools, to assess the effectiveness of particular components of social infrastructure. Social infrastructure is an inclusive and somewhat summative concept in Palaces for the People. That aim makes sense. But for those of us who might interested in making changes to increase the impact, resilience and sustainability of social infrastructure, we need more detailed analysis. Analytic tools, looking at who, how and why social infrastructure works, or does not, and in what situations is essential. Broadly speaking, Klineberg has presenter a powerful high-level concept, a compelling way to think about and act on improving institutional impact. What we do with it, though, is the next major question.

David Potash

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