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The Key to Happiness Might Be as Simple as a Library or a Park

It is, especially when Klinenberg discusses social infrastructure in terms of quality, not just quantity. While some of his examples simply reinforce the inarguable fact that we need more of these resources (more libraries! more gyms! more gardens!), his most illuminating cases gauge what happens in spaces whose designs are either socially helpful or harmful. Social infrastructure becomes less a thing to maximize than a lens that communities and policymakers should apply to every routine decision about physical investment: Do the features of this proposed school, park or sewer system tend to help human beings to form connections?

In case after case, we learn how socially-minded design matters. A vaunted housing project built in 1950s St. Louis quickly became a nightmare of crime and vandalism; a smaller, adjacent complex remained relatively free of trouble because its design promoted “informal surveillance” and care of common spaces by neighbors. The reconfiguration of large urban schools into smaller, more manageable ones now shows promise in boosting graduation rates in New York — partly because this allows parents, students and teachers to form a community in which problems are addressed informally before they can disrupt learning.

Meanwhile, much of our built environment contains negative or “exclusive social infrastructure,” including gated communities in the United States and South Africa, and college fraternities, which Klinenberg condemns categorically based on their association with substance abuse and sexual assault. (The construction of a massive wall, unsurprisingly, is an example of public investment that is not conducive to social infrastructure.)

Much of the book’s most interesting content has to do with climate security. From the informal network of Houston churches that kicked into gear after Hurricane Harvey, to the unlikely rise of the Rockaway Beach Surf Club in New York as a vital hub of recovery after Hurricane Sandy, we see how the right kind of social infrastructure can aid struggling communities and even save lives by connecting people during and after disasters. As Klinenberg observes, “when hard infrastructure fails … it’s the softer, social infrastructure that determines our fate.”

Klinenberg’s approach even lets him apply appealing nuance to precincts of our social life that have become objects of simplistic head-shaking and finger-wagging. When it comes to social media, for example, he takes a look at online communities, especially for young people, and pointedly suggests that teenagers turn to the digital realm largely because they have little alternative. Modern parenting norms make it less likely they will be allowed to physically move around their neighborhoods and communities. When unable to use traditional spaces like streets or parks, young people have no choice but to rely on the internet as their primary social infrastructure. It’s a point that should invite introspection among parents who require their children to remain within sight, then scold them for spending too much time looking at screens.

“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. After finishing it, I started asking how ordinary features of my city, from streetlights to flowerpots, might affect the greater well-being of residents. Physically robust infrastructure is not enough if it fails to foster a healthy community; ultimately, all infrastructure is social.

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