This is about as angry and vehement as the usually cosy world of American liberal urbanism can get. At the heart of the book is that idea of the library or park rather than the market as the real agora, the place where urban life is lived at its best, an example of the “social infrastructure” that could really rebuild America. Unlike in a McDonald’s, a Starbucks or a chic Sourdough bakery, “You have to try very hard to be kicked out of the library.” Klinenberg praises the charitable work of Andrew Carnegie, whose programme of branch libraries provided miniature baroque palaces in the most ordinary places. It is best put in the words of one working-class resident of Queens, New York, who tells the author that during a difficult childhood “the library was a place where I could go and ignore people, and also know I wasn’t alone”. That’s what many of us most want, but can’t have, in city life.
Palaces of the People has its limitations. For an academic, Klinenberg shows little interest in the evolution of thinking about social infrastructure or contemporary discussions of related ideas. Indeed the concept never quite comes into focus. Yet this is a significant and engaging work. It’s easy to write about the importance of local social life. It’s harder to know what to do to support it. Too many writers end by calling on us to reform our ways and rededicate ourselves to our communities. Klinenberg’s argument has a powerful simplicity. Look after the social infrastructure and social bonds will largely look after themselves.
Indeed, if you made the background of the book its foreground, it would be a devastating portrayal of fragmentation, despair and disruption. But Klinenberg, an optimist, tells heartwarming stories... What the book lacks is a desire to tackle the hard questions, such as: how much do things like this cost and how are they paid for?... The book would also benefit from a tougher edge when telling its feelgood stories. It would be more credible if it told more of what happened next, of what works and what doesn’t... All of which means that the stories and insights come with a certain amount of mush. The conclusion is majestically woolly: “What we need, now more than ever, is an inclusive conversation about the kinds of infrastructure – physical as well as social – that would best serve, sustain and protect us.” Try putting that on an election poster. Or a tweet.
Klinenberg is almost too polite to hammer the point home, but he gets there: “It’s hard to find Carnegie’s sense of goodwill and civic-mindedness in today’s Silicon Valley, where the entire industry depends on technology developed by the government – the internet – and a publicly funded communications infrastructure… How much more wealth do they need to accumulate before they are ready to help?”
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With the best will in the world, however, most people have their limits. One of Klinenberg’s examples of the glories of togetherness comes from Iceland, and its huge public pools. “The diversity of users, and the rule that everyone must strip naked and wash off in a public area before entering the tubs, make the pools an equalising force in Icelandic society,” he says. Horses for courses and all that, but if that’s the utopia on offer, this particular northern European would rather be glum and lonely.
... 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... “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.