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 ... 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.
...Klinenberg, an optimist, tells heartwarming stories of abandoned lots in Englewood, Chicago, that have been converted to agriculture, of 'geriatric parks' in Spain, complete with age-appropriate play equipment, of measures in Singapore to help people of different generations know one another ... infrastructure that would be useful and pleasurable at once ... What the book lacks is a desire to tackle the hard questions, such as: how much do things [communal facilities] like this cost and how are they paid for? How do you sell them to public authorities and voters in today’s hostile climate? It’s notable that many of the success stories are in the authoritarian state of Singapore—how can they be transferred to western democracies? The book would also benefit from a tougher edge when telling its feelgood stories. It would be more credible if it told more of what happened next, of what works and what doesn’t ... All of which means that the stories and insights come with a certain amount of mush.
Sociologist Klinenberg discerns a critical and overlooked source of many of America’s ills, from inequality to political polarization and social fragmentation: the deterioration of the nation’s social infrastructure. From parks and playgrounds to churches and cafés, social infrastructure encompasses 'the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact.' ... In six nuanced, thematic chapters, blending academic research, interviews, and personal narrative, Klinenberg presents social infrastructure as the neglected building block of a healthy civil society ... This is an engrossing, timely, hopeful read, nothing less than a new lens through which to view the world and its current conflicts.
Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, began his career in Chicago and his first book Heatwave explored the role social bonds played in explaining why the 1995 heatwave affected some Chicagoans more severely than others. He has since published studies on 'solo living' and dating that similarly worry about the fate of social ties in the modern world. Palaces of the People represents a more ambitious work, championing the importance of what Klinenberg calls 'social infrastructure' to our individual and collective wellbeing ... Palaces of the People has its limitations. For an academic, Klinenberg shows little interest in the evolution of thinking about social infrastructure or contemporary discussions of related ideas. Indeed the concept never quite comes into focus. Yet this is a significant and engaging work ... Klinenberg’s argument has a powerful simplicity. Look after the social infrastructure and social bonds will largely look after themselves.
Klinenberg... has written a paean to libraries, parks, playgrounds and other public spaces, but he is unable to keep the bleaker realities of urban (and, unusually, suburban) life out of his would-be-inspiring 'Aren’t Cities great?' narrative. What are clearly meant to be instructive just-so stories and heartwarming anecdotes are often much more grim and upsetting than he seems to think they are ... The flaws of the book come out in a discussion of another of these apparently public 'infrastructures'... This leads us to the question of ownership, and places where this book won’t go – harder measures, such as nationalisation, that could keep social infrastructure social, and keep public spaces public ... [Klinenberg] asks, rightly, why no tech billionaire has ever done for “the people” what Carnegie did with his libraries.
It’s been a long time since the American engineering community gave a higher grade than a D to the country’s infrastructure. By Klinenberg’s account, there are other benefits to infrastructure besides simply getting us where we want to go safely and allowing our toilets to flush. What he calls 'social infrastructure,' for instance, provides us with physical spaces where we can gather to solve problems and simply be together: Churches, libraries, public swimming pools, and the like are important centers of community-building and social cohesion. It is telling that public enterprises such as libraries and low-income child care are in a state of collapse thanks to our apparent dislike for paying taxes to support them; private enterprises that provide 'third spaces,' neither home nor work but somewhere in between, are doing better and 'help produce the material foundations for social life.' ... Fine reading for community activists seeking to expand the social infrastructure of their own home places.
Sociologist Klinenberg presents an illuminating examination of 'social infrastructure,' the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact. Touring libraries, playgrounds, churches, barbershops, cafés, athletic fields, and community gardens, Klinenberg identifies the ways such spaces help prevent crime, reduce addiction rates, contribute to economic growth, and even ameliorate problems caused by climate change ... Klinenberg’s observations are effortlessly discursive and always cogent, whether covering the ways playgrounds instill youth with civic values or a Chicago architect’s plans to transform a police station into a community center. He persuasively illustrates the vital role these spaces play in repairing civic life in an era characterized by urgent social needs and gridlock stemming from political polarization.