Social Infrastructure

I was given a particularly intriguing reading recently – an excerpt from the recent book Palaces for the People, by the sociologist Eric Klinenberg. It discusses the value of social infrastructure – an umbrella term for the “physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact.” In other words, it’s comprised of the places in our lives where we forge social bonds through face-to-face interactions.

Why is social infrastructure so important? The author explains with a particularly tragic story about the 1995 heat wave in Chicago. Some neighborhoods that were demographically similar (99% African American, for example) had drastically different public health outcomes, as much as 10x the number of deaths per capita in Englewood versus Auburn Gresham for example. After copious amounts of research, the author concluded that the difference was mostly in the levels of community interaction and culture of mutual support. People in Auburn Gresham knew their neighbors and checked in on each other during the heat wave, which made all the difference to save lives.

The author notes that we live in a more divided and isolated world than ever before. Incendiary politics plays a part in this, sure – but even ignoring that, people in Level 4 countries are just not building social trust with each other like they did in the past. The theory is that a historical lack of investment in physical places to interact with other people (social infrastructure) leads to increased social isolation, which leads to less civic engagement in local institutions, and ultimately results in the degradation of social trust.

Social media is not real social infrastructure

I buy this theory, but I’d also posit that one more element acts as a catalyst to every step in this chain of events. I believe the increase of wealth inequality in a society over time is a factor that directly accelerates all of these as a negative consequence. Concentration of wealth results in less public money to build social infrastructure (philanthropic contributions are not nearly enough), the need to work in excess to keep up with the Joneses results in less time for social & civic engagement, and the growing class divide results in worlds of people who don’t talk to or understand one another.

Extreme wealth inequality makes everything worse

What to Build

Despite the gloomy outlook above, one day it might be my job as a planner to think about how to incorporate social infrastructure into a project proposal. Fortunately, Klinenberg provides a concise taxonomy that I will keep here for reference.

Public institutionsLibraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, athletic fields, swimming pools
Public realmSidewalks, courtyards, community gardens, green spaces, beaches
Community organizationsChurches, civic associations, markets
Commercial establishmentsThird spaces (cafes, bookstores, diners, pubs) – where people are participants, not just observers

He also notes that it is possible to build social infrastructure on top of existing, underutilized hard infrastructure – the High Line in New York City is a great example of this. Basically any space can be turned into a form of social infrastructure as long as it draws people to it and encourages them to linger (versus moving in/out and back to private life).

I look forward to exploring the concept of social infrastructure more in the future, hopefully doing my small part to reverse the downwards spiral defined by the modern era (i.e. late-stage capitalism).

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