Eric Klinenberg, American sociologist and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, recently wrote and published his fourth book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civil Life.
Klinenberg is no stranger to writing as his work has been published in multiple journals, including the American Sociology Review, Rolling Stones, and The New York Times Magazine. Palaces for the People is an engaging blend of urbanizing cities and polarizing societies and touches on moving forward and enhancing the quality of social life in whirling times.
Libraries, daycare centers, bookstores, and churches might not be what comes to mind when thinking of palaces. Instead, you might imagine tall glass and stone structures amidst a green field with a sparkling lake. Princes and princesses, butlers, horses, and royalty. However, Eric Klinenberg describes our libraries, synagogues, and parks as crucial and vital infrastructure where “life-saving connections” are formed.
If you’ve ever read Jane Jacobs, world-renowned urbanist and activist, and her fight to maintain the liveliness of Greenwich Village in New York, Klinenberg strongly resembles her once liberal and progressive ideas. Places, where people can gather, form relationships, and connect with their surrounding society, are key to strengthening the general community.
The social infrastructure of the city is what breaks apart the heavy concrete roads and car-polluted streets into smaller social hotspots on street corners, playgrounds, and as parents pick their kids up from school.
Eric Klinenberg emphasizes that “[s]ocial infrastructure is not ‘social capital’ – a concept commonly used to measure people’s relationships and interpersonal networks – but the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops.”
Gradually, healthy human relationships develop within public life, elevating city life but also working towards fighting inequality and societal polarization.
Eric Klinenberg is also an experienced traveler and researcher. After moving from Chicago to New York, Klinenberg has pursued research in Argentina, France, Japan, and Singapore, just to name a few. While each region of the world experiences its unique characteristics, residents share similar concerns over their public lives.
Societies around the world, according to Klinenberg, have become more divided, conflicted, and increasingly opposed. Social order is becoming undone due to various political, sociological, and economical reasons. Klinenberg describes this as unsustainable and expresses concern from his perspective as both a sociologist and an American citizen. He goes on to say that while social activity has remained steady since the 1970s, the way of socializing has changed.
Americans tend to spend more time with friends rather than their neighbors and are more likely to use the Internet as a social platform. Social infrastructure, claims Eric Klinenberg, is critical but undervalued in modern societies. However, while Klinenberg understands that social infrastructure alone isn’t the solution to unite and protect communities around the world, he says we can’t address challenges without it.
A Healthy Public
In his book, Eric Klinenberg beautifully mentions the importance of physical social infrastructure and its subtle impact on vulnerable communities. Klinenberg, however, takes a moment to focus on the people. After all, social infrastructure without people is just infrastructure.
In 2017, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), American’s overall infrastructure score resulted in a D+. While it comes as no surprise that ASCE doesn’t consider social infrastructure, Klinenberg remarks that it’s strange that the ASCE avoids rating the nation’s health and food infrastructures.
One can argue that without properly analyzing and paying attention to social infrastructure, a nation’s health won’t progress. Eric Klinenberg references the opioid addiction crisis in America since the late 1990s. He says that while there is no single cause of the epidemic, overlooking the loss of social cohesion and support is an often important factor.
An increasing loss of community, in Klinenberg’s perspective, increases health, family, and government issues. The impact of social isolation leads to major public issues that begin to affect entire cities. Despite the intensity of America’s opioid crisis, it’s not the biggest threat to the nation’s public health.
An absence of basic goods in poor and gentrified communities, such as Englewood on the South Side of Chicago, harshly affects the daily lives of inhabitants. Life expectancy plummets below average and abandoned homes, closed shops, and empty lots are more common. It all feels like a domino effect the more you think about it. Without properly facilitating social infrastructure and providing space for people to interact within a public vicinity, it makes it hard for the quality of life to improve and be attractive.
This in turn causes issues of inequality and polarization. Since Eric Klinenberg grew up in Chicago, he’s able to develop his argument for a healthy social infrastructure within Englewood and the state overall. Neglect from the bottom cannot guarantee success at the top. It’s a process and Klinenberg, thanks to his many endeavors around the world, can apply the same concept to cities around the world.
A Modern Jane Jacobs
Overall, Eric Klinenberg does a marvelous job in emphasizing multiple issues that contribute to poor social infrastructure. As someone who appreciates other books like Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, Palaces for the People is a modern urban guide on how cities around the world can improve the quality of life for their inhabitants. It can also be looked at from the context of today’s world of quarantine, pandemic, and crisis.
Klinenberg manages to be relevant and progressive in hopes of a better future for less privileged communities. It’s inspiring and motivating to be able to understand how past projects and matters can translate to the present and the future. I would encourage those in fields of design, urbanization, and beyond to not only focus on future sustainability but current sustainability as well.
While nothing can become what leaders idealize, it makes a difference to see the effort and proper management to overlooked and underappreciated communities around the world.
- Klinenberg, Eric. Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. Broadway Books, 2019.