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There are two things I love about Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. First, he makes a great case for things that matter to me – public investment in basic infrastructure that encourages us to live together in healthy ways. I’ll admit, he had me at public libraries, but I stayed for the parks, housing, education, public health, and preparation for climate change. Second, it’s a great example of research made accessible to non-experts, going on the shelf next to Matt Desmond’s Evicted, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction, and Virginia Eubanks' Automating Inequality among others. I would love to show students how the dry literature review can become a lively form of public communication. In this case, Klinenberg draws on loads of published scholarship as well as his own, weaving it together into a powerful argument.

cover Palaces for the PeopleBut it’s a big, complex argument, and some readers may find that challenging. He doesn’t focus on a singular problem, but writes about many, each of which is the subject of any number of books: social isolation, economic and racial stratification, the outsourcing of our social interactions to ad-tech companies, the opiod crisis, the defunding of libraries and schools, mistakes in urban planning, and climate change and what it means for our future lives together. His argument is that we need to think harder about how to build social infrastructure into the proposed solutions to all social problems because how we design things to benefit the humans who live with them matters as much as all the concrete or technology we pour into them.

Social infrastructure is not the same thing as social capital. It’s rather “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact,” and those things in turn determine whether or not we can develop social capital. (I was tickled by Klinenberg’s clever riff on “bowling alone” that adds to and to some extent refutes Robert Putnam’s classic.) We can influence the things that either help us feel connected and supported in a community - or isolated and alone. The need is pressing because we face a rise in authoritarianism, polarization, and oceans all at the same time.

The systems we built in the past were expressions of what we wanted for society. National parks, railroads, libraries, schools – they were bold statements about who we thought we could be. As our hard infrastructure crumbles and our social problems grow, we need to think about who we want to be, together: “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.” He argues for an inclusive and democratic conversation about those things, harnessing not just civil engineering or tech solutionism but what we know about society to fix the fissures in our communities. The examples he explores are fascinating and give academics and librarians plenty to think about and to apply locally as we think about our own spaces and social interactions.

Titles can be misleading, as John Warner pointed out recently – and this one is, a bit. What Klinenberg advocates is not luxury along the lines of grand train stations of the past but decency and thoughtfulness in designing the spaces we live in, especially at a moment when the current administration has promised public investment in infrastructure. (Controlling immigration on the Mexican border by building a huge, expensive wall is mentioned as hard infrastructure that doesn’t have a soft side or great social benefit apart from temporary construction jobs.) The purpose of the book is stated more clearly in the subtitle, but publishers have a habit of overpromising  when they put an elevator pitch on the cover.

In this case, the author delivers, but it also shows how ambitious this work is: an attempt to pull together research that addresses “soft” infrastructure at a moment when there’s talk of spending lots of money on “hard" infrastructure that could create stronger communities if planned thoughtfully and addressed to our most pressing problems rather than politically expedient promises. This includes expensive new projects like building breakwaters that invite community engagement while addressing rising sea levels, or simply funding public libraries adequately and understanding how they bind communities together.

If nothing else,  the academic research Klinenberg has pulled into this narrative is cheering news that academic research, without making it over-simplified, can be fascinating and of great value if we understand it and act on it.

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