Patrons use computers at the Nashville Public Library in Nashville in 2015. Mark Humphrey/AP

Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People, talks about how schools, libraries, and other institutions can restore a sense of common purpose in America.

America is at a crossroads: Our nation is as divided as at any point since the Civil War. Our cities face a new crisis of escalating housing costs, rampant gentrification, and a growing gap between rich and poor.

In his new book out today, Palaces for the People, my New York University colleague Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist, makes the case that a better future for our cities and our society can be built around the concept of social infrastructure. Following a long tradition of social thought from Alexis de Tocqueville and John Dewey to Robert Putnam, Klinenberg sees social infrastructure as veritable glue that connects us and binds us together in our communities. He argues that renewing our commitment to this infrastructure is essential to rebuilding a more cohesive, civil, and forward-looking society.

Penguin Random House, right / Eric Klinenberg, left (Lisa DeNeffe)

“I honestly wrote this book in kind of a fury after the [2016] election,” is how he put it to me when we spoke. “I got really tired of the conversation about how horrible the world is and about how things are falling apart. I felt like I need to scour the world for solutions to provide some sort of blueprint for how we move forward.”

I spoke with Klinenberg by phone last week about the book and how America and its cities can move forward based on his concept of social infrastructure. Our conversation has been lightly edited.

What is social infrastructure—how do you define it?

Social infrastructure is a set of physical places and organizations that shape our interactions. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters all kinds of social interactions, helps build relationships, and turns community from a vague, fuzzy concept into a lived experience. When social infrastructure is degraded and neglected, it makes it far more likely that we will grow isolated and be left to fend for ourselves.

I think of social infrastructure as being just as real as the infrastructure for water, food, energy, or transit. It is the material substratum that supports social life. The idea is that the social life we experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s a context for it. It can be supported or undermined by the places where we spend time.

It’s quite literally a thing in the world that we failed to conceive and, because we failed to conceive it, we haven’t seen or recognized the possibilities for building it up. I think people believe that the social glue has come undone, and the level of polarization and divisiveness we are experiencing right now is unsustainable. Now is the crucial moment for starting to think more seriously about how we rebuild some sense of a common purpose.

We’re already familiar with the concept of “third places”: the corner bar, the coffee shop, the hair salon, and the like. How does social infrastructure differ from the third place?

Third places can be part of the social infrastructure. Commercial entities do have a key role in shaping how we interact. I observed this in my research in Chicago: If you lived in a poor neighborhood that had a dense and flourishing retail district, you were just more likely to be drawn out of your home and into areas where you would establish social contacts. If you are fortunate enough to live near a bar, restaurant, or bookstore that is truly a welcoming space, you will benefit from having that third place.

But social infrastructure is more expansive. It involves a number of public facilities as well as these private and commercial ones. For instance, the public library: It provides a variety of services and public benefits for people of all ages and stations, regardless of social class, regardless of race or ethnicity, regardless of citizenship status. They’re amazing institutions that would be kind of inconceivable if we didn’t already have them. It’s hard to imagine this notion that every citizen has a right to their cultural heritage and to access a free place where they can better themselves outside of the market coming from a moment like this.

Childcare centers, athletic fields, schools—these are all part of the social infrastructure as well.

You write about the limits of the broken-windows approach to crime. Does social infrastructure point to a better way?

The broken-windows approach didn’t have to be zero-tolerance stop and frisk. It also included at its point of origin a social-infrastructure idea. It was a revelation for me to go back and read [the 1982 Atlantic article] “Broken Windows,” because it has been used politically as justification for a set of policing tactics that even its authors didn’t advocate.

The broken-windows theory began with a statement that communities become targeted and prone to violence and disorder when a building got abandoned, a window broke, graffiti was posted, and people perceived it to be that no one was watching, paying attention, or controlling the social order. They perceived the broken physical spaces as an invitation to crime. The policy response to that has been to crack down on criminal activity, but bizarrely, never to simply fix the window. We never thought to repair the abandoned home or empty lot.

We both have young kids, so when you wrote about social infrastructure for children, I immediately got it. What do you think are the keys to developing better social infrastructure for families?

Let’s start with the childcare center. Harvard sociologist Mario Small studied different kinds of childcare centers and observed that places that really worked hard to welcome parents and created an informal social space, and even an expectation that parents would spend some time in the facility, managed to foster relationships between family members and across families that would provide mutual social support. The physical design and the programming of our institutions for children can make a big difference.

In the book, I write about the school my kids go to in New York City, which has a large extended sidewalk and mini-park area in front of it, and that has a policy that parents of children in early grades have to spend the first 15 to 20 minutes in the classroom with other kids, but also other parents. It’s set up in a way that it is impossible not to develop a community around the school. Whereas when my wife and I took our children to Silicon Valley to spend a year at Stanford, we found that almost everyone dropped off their children via car through a driveway. As a result, you don’t really get to know the school or the other families in the same way. Efficiency, which can be so nice in so many parts of life, is the enemy of family ties.

There are so many forces isolating us. How does the density of the city or neighborhood constitute social infrastructure?

I grew up in Chicago in a neighborhood called Old Town, which had a mix of single-family homes and smaller apartments; fairly low levels of density compared to Manhattan, where I live now. Old Town has a kind of urban landscape that invites people to linger, to sit on the stoops and co-mingle.

The cross streets of Lower Manhattan do just the opposite. You walk as quickly as you possibly can to get into your home. And that doesn’t mean Chicago is a better place to socialize than Manhattan. It just means that in Manhattan, you need another set of social institutions to step up.

Coffee shops, bars, and the like are seen by many as signals of gentrification. How can social infrastructure lead to greater inclusivity?

The most important thing is to recognize that without careful planning, investments in social infrastructure can facilitate displacement and the worst parts of gentrification. I’ve spent years thinking about this because I’ve been the director of research for Rebuild by Design, a federal competition for rebuilding the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. One of the projects that came out of the competition involves building up the social infrastructure in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is an area that is dense with public housing and has a lot of poverty.

From the outset, the residents involved in the planning process expressed real concern that if they supported the initiative, they would simply wind up pushed out. The people who are thinking about future cities keep talking about resilience these days. What the residents of the Lower East Side rightly perceived is that you can’t bounce back if you’re getting bounced out. The debate was, what can we do to make sure investments in social infrastructure didn’t simply result in more polarization and more inequality?

And there’s not an easy answer to this. Political leadership and policy matter here a great deal, and what kind of laws there are to protect residents of an area, laws to protect renters. We have spent years gutting protections for renters, and I think those policy shifts have resulted in more displacement, more dangerous gentrification. I think the question you’re asking is ”How can we do it better?” I don’t know that there’s a guarantee, but I do think it’s the responsibility of policymakers and citizens that those issues are always on the table.

What about suburbs? How do they build social infrastructure with less density?

There’s already a strong push to think about how to develop more walkable areas in suburbs. We can see the value of social infrastructure and how much it is valued by Americans when we look at the most exclusive or affluent suburbs. These are places that have already invested in social infrastructure. Affluent suburbs have athletic facilities and public parks. The libraries of our affluent suburbs are amazing places. I don’t want readers to come away thinking that suburbs have not invested in social infrastructure. In some ways, they invest more in social infrastructure than cities.

Will building social infrastructure come from the top down or bubble up from the bottom?

One of the great things about the United States is that the states and cities are laboratories for democracy and they allow us to experiment with policies and see what works. For a paltry sum, the City of Philadelphia has found a way to reduce violence in many of the most dangerous neighborhoods by investing in places instead of punishing people. The science here is still pretty early, but one can easily imagine taking that policy idea and scaling it up.

I think there’s incredible energy at the grassroots level in cities across the country and we are seeing a renewal of civic engagement. I can imagine using that energy to make local life better. The one caution here is … in the United States, the money required to do this kind of rebuilding really is not at the city level. That’s the problem. The funding cities need comes from the states or the federal government.

In the absence of larger political leadership, it’s hard to really fix the infrastructure in the way that we need it to be fixed. Large-scale infrastructure investment is going to have to involve the coordination of federal, state, and city governments. I think the energy and solutions will come from inside cities, but I think the resources have to come from something bigger.

As divided as we currently are, how can social infrastructure actually bring us together?

It’s only through our shared experiences and shared attempts to solve common problems that we are going to make headway. We are not going to resolve our differences through moral persuasion. We are not going to work this out through debate, and it’s clearly not going to happen through the formal political process. Campaigns and elections are not bringing us together; they’re dividing us further.

It’s not that I’m an optimist, but I do see a way forward. I talk a lot about the branch library in this book, and that’s because they are places where I see the best traditions of America expressing themselves every day—people who are given opportunities to study a language or get a second chance through a job-training program. The kind of investments I see people making in their communities in Republican districts as well as Democratic ones stem from some common principles and concerns.

Unfortunately, things have fallen apart so dramatically in the United States that I think we need to start rebuilding at that foundational level. What common concerns do we have and how can we manage them? I think we have to build up from there. It’s not that I believe social infrastructure will solve all of our problems, but I do think it’s the only place we can meaningfully begin.

About the Author

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