We face daunting problems in the twenty-first century — polarization that has people at each other’s throats, the isolation that can result from our fraying social bonds, the growing inequality that is exacerbating so many problems. Psychologists offer one set of solutions, such as helping people address unresolved personal issues, guiding them to think about problems in more empathetic and constructive ways, or teaching them better interpersonal skills.
Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, in Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, has a different idea. He believes that an important way to address today’s challenges is to develop and maintain “the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact” — what he calls “social infrastructure.”
These are places where people can come together — places like libraries, coffee shops, barber shops, hair salons, bookstores, playgrounds, athletic fields, public swimming pools, parks, courtyards, community gardens, farmers markets, schools, and churches — and do the things they enjoy, often seeing the same people over and over again, and, ideally, staying as long as they want. As a result, people come to know and care about one another, and differences that might otherwise divide them are less likely to become toxic.
What is it that makes some social infrastructures particularly effective in bringing people together and building resilient communities? Tellingly, it is not always the physical beauty of the spaces or the wealth of the neighborhoods. One of Klinenberg’s most touching examples was a group of elderly people in one of the poorest, crime-ridden districts in New York City, who met regularly at a run-down branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to participate in a virtual bowling league. Many lacked the physical strength to lift an actual bowling ball, and most had never bowled in their lives; but instead of staying home alone, they gathered to cheer each other on as they competed with other teams using an Xbox, flat screen TV, and an internet connection.
In one delightful chapter after another, Klinenberg takes readers to the sites of social infrastructures and explains what matters. Accessibility is important. A rooftop garden open only to the people who live in the building is a less effective social infrastructure than a community garden. An upscale café that is pricey and discourages people from staying too long does less to bring people together than a church basement. Size is also significant. For example, in smaller schools, the students, teachers, parents, and administrators are more attuned to each other than they are in larger schools.
Social infrastructure, Klinenberg argues, is just as important as physical infrastructure. Carefully designed social infrastructures can reduce crime and addiction and mitigate the devastating consequences of climate change. Social infrastructures don’t just support people during the best of times; they can also be staging grounds for assistance during the worst of times. When Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, the Wilcrest Baptist Church was transformed into a relief center, where people who needed help could find it, and volunteers could organize to provide it.
The themes that Klinenberg brings together in his argument for the power of social infrastructure had already been percolating in a brew of emerging and classic books and concepts. The author tips his hat to Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam’s book that escorted the notion of social capital outside of the halls of academia and into the public sphere. New urbanism and “third places” are also acknowledged. The significance of the size of schools has roots in ecological systems approaches dating back to the late 60s. More recently, books such as Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, Melody Warnick’s This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, Florence Williams’s The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, and my own How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, all offered perspectives complementary to Klinenberg’s.
Eric Klinenberg is the author of the groundbreaking book on living alone, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. In his extensive research, he found that people who live alone are not typically the isolated shut-ins that populate our stereotypes, but instead are often the life of the cities and towns where they live. A plausible implication is that when welcoming social infrastructures are built, it is probably the people living alone who show up first and return most often. In Palaces for the People, though, the socially involved singletons from Going Solo are mostly ignored. The solo-dwellers who command the most attention are those who are old and at risk for becoming isolated. They deserve their place in Palaces, but so do the thriving singletons.
In Going Solo, Klinenberg never stigmatized single people. In his own words, he doesn’t in Palaces, either, but he does quote or paraphrase, without pushback or qualification, others who pin society’s ills on low rates of marriage, high rates of divorce, and fragmented families. Millions of single people – never married and previously married, with and without children – are living constructive, fulfilling, and dignified lives, and contributing to society. They are not social problems.
Nonetheless, overall Palaces is masterful piece of work. It is one of those rare books that offers a serious, innovative, and workable answer to some of the most formidable challenges of our time.
Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life
Crown, September 2018
Hardcover, 278 pages