‘Social Infrastructure’ and the Interactions That Bond Us
In Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg explores the idea of “social infrastructure,” the physical sites, institutions, and groups that are essential in developing a cohesive social fabric. In a conversation with Richard Florida, he describes social infrastructure’s importance and what happens when it frays:
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.
Klinenberg says social infrastructure is as important to a well-functioning society as other types of infrastructure – water, energy, transportation – and it is made up of a range of private and public places. Childcare facilities, athletic fields, and schools all foster social interaction. The public library is an especially significant part of social infrastructure, says Klinenberg:
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.
Klinenberg believes that social infrastructure, while not a panacea for society’s problems, does provide a sense of shared experience that is integral to repairing our divided society. In addition, he thinks that the strengthening of social infrastructure happens not at the highest levels of society but rather through public engagement in grassroots efforts.