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.