This extract from Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg (Published September 2018), is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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This winter, as countries across the globe re-enter ‘lockdown” periods and tighten restrictions to our social lives to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the critical role of “social infrastructure” is apparent everywhere.
Today, the word “infrastructure” usually makes us think of what engineers and policy makers refer to as hard or physical infrastructure: large-scale systems for transit, electricity, gas, oil, food, finance, sewage, water, heat, communications, and storm protection. Sometimes experts call these systems the “critical infrastructure,” because policy makers perceive them to be essential for functioning societies. […]“Infrastructure” is not a term conventionally used to describe the underpinnings of social life. But this is a consequential oversight, because the built environment—and not just cultural preferences or the existence of voluntary organizations—influences the breadth and depth of our associations. If states and societies do not recognize social infrastructure and how it works, they will fail to see a powerful way to promote civic engagement and social interaction, both within communities and across group lines.
What counts as social infrastructure? I define it capaciously. Public institutions, such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, athletic fields, and swimming pools, are vital parts of the social infrastructure. So too are sidewalks, courtyards, community gardens, and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Community organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructures when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, furniture, clothing, art, and other consumer goods. Commercial establishments can also be important parts of the social infrastructure, particularly when they operate as what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “third spaces,” places (like cafés, diners, barbershops, and bookstores) where people are welcome to congregate and linger regardless of what they’ve purchased. Entrepreneurs typically start these kinds of businesses because they want to generate income. But in the process, as close observers of the city such as Jane Jacobs and the Yale ethnographer Elijah Anderson have discovered, they help produce the material foundations for social life. […]
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Different kinds of social infrastructure play different roles in the local environment, and support different kinds of social ties. Some places, such as libraries, YMCAs, and schools, provide space for recurring interaction, often programmed, and tend to encourage more durable relationships. Others, such as playgrounds and street markets, tend to support looser connections—but of course these ties can, and sometimes do, grow more substantial if the interactions become more frequent or the parties establish a deeper bond. Countless close friendships between mothers, and then entire families, begin because two toddlers visit the same swing set. Basketball players who participate in regular pickup games often befriend people with different political preferences, or with a different ethnic, religious, or class status, and wind up exposed to ideas they wouldn’t likely encounter off the court. […]
A recent ethnographic study of the New York City subway system, for instance, shows that people forge “transient communities” as they ride through the metropolis. The daily experience of spending time on crowded train cars rarely leads to long-term relationships, but it helps passengers learn to deal with difference, density, diversity, and other people’s needs. It fosters cooperation and trust. It exposes people to unexpected behavior and challenges stereotypes about group identity. The subway is not only New York City’s main social artery but also its largest and most heterogeneous public space. […]
Given the world’s cultural diversity, it’s no surprise that there is great variety in the kinds of social infrastructure that people find essential. In rural areas, for instance, hunting clubs, town halls, and fairgrounds are key sites for gathering, and community suppers are a staple of local life. Watering holes are hubs of social activity in societies across the planet, and some are especially important. “Of all the social institutions that mold men’s lives between home and work in an industrial town,” writes the MassObservation collective, in a classic ethnographic study of British industrial culture, the pub is more prevalent, “holds more people, takes more of their time and money, than church, cinema, dance-hall, and political organizations put together.” […]
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In other public places, ordinary people are “the audiences, watchers of political, religious, dramatic, cinematic, instructional or athletic spectacles,” but in the pub, things are different. “Once a man has bought or been bought his glass of beer, he has entered an environment in which he [is] participator rather than spectator.” Drinking grounds serve as sites of civic activity in other societies, of course. The Germans have their beer gardens, the French their cafés, the Japanese their izakayas and karaoke bars. They are vivid examples of those “third places,” the small, warm, intimate settings where people in public can feel like they’re at home. […]
I never joined the early morning Tai Chi or group dance sessions in the parks near the places I stayed in Shanghai or Beijing, but undoubtedly millions of older Chinese people participate in them regularly for the social as well as physical benefits. In Iceland, geothermal swimming pools called “hot pots” are vital civic spaces, where people regularly cross class and generational lines. The Mexican zócalo, the Spanish plaza (or plaça, in Barcelona), and the Italian piazza serve the same function. I’ve never been to Rio de Janeiro, the Seychelles, Kingston, Jamaica, or Cape Town, but I’ve spent enough time in other coastal areas and lakefronts to know that nearly everyone appreciates the social opportunities created by a well-maintained beach.
Few modern social infrastructures are natural, however, and in densely populated areas even beaches and forests require careful engineering and management to meet human needs. This means that all social infrastructure requires investment, whether for development or upkeep, and when we fail to build and maintain it, the material foundations of our social and civic life erode.
The components of social infrastructure rarely crash as completely or as visibly as a fallen bridge or a downed electrical line, and their breakdowns don’t result in immediate systemic failures. But when the social infrastructure gets degraded, the consequences are unmistakable. People reduce the time they spend in public settings and hunker down in their safe houses. Social networks weaken. Crime rises. Older and sick people grow isolated. Distrust rises and civic participation wanes.
The systems we build in coming years will tell future generations who we are and how we see the world today. If we fail to bridge our gaping social divisions, they may even determine whether that “we” continues to exist. Today, nations around the world are poised to spend trillions of dollars on vital infrastructure projects that we need to get through the twenty- first century and beyond. Before we lift the next shovel, we should know what we want to improve, what we need to protect, and, more important, what kind of society we want to create for our post-COVID 19 world.
Find out more about: Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg (Published September 2018)
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