Palaces for the People

How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life

By Emily Pierson-Brown, AIA Posted on September 12, 2019

Palaces for the People cover.  Image courtesy Penguin Random House.

On the same day I received Palaces for the People to review, I wandered through the Carnegie Library Downtown & Business on my lunch hour. A whiteboard faced the front door advertising the month’s events. Book clubs, reading lists, support groups. Men and women in suits mingled with the less well-heeled to browse the new book tables and utilize the free WiFi.

In Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg (who also authored a previous work of social history chronicling the Chicago heat wave of 1995 that inspired this book) advocates for stronger “social infrastructure,” of which the library is a prime example. The author defines social infrastructure as “the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops.” The book is, in essence, a passionate argument for better public space.  Public space that is more thoughtfully designed, more well kept, and more robustly supported and funded.

The historic façade of the Lawrenceville Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh by @anyonecantakeapicture. Alden & Harlow.

Though Klinenberg only briefly touches on the financial investments required to create and maintain these spaces, his thesis – that social infrastructure is critical to healthy communities and, more broadly, a strong republic, and that it is the erosion of public space that has contributed to the decline of both – is difficult to argue against.

The six chapters of the book cover everything from the “broken windows” theory of policing to senior housing in Singapore.  Klinenberg makes a compelling case that social infrastructure will lead to more equitable outcomes across a variety of categories: health, education, the environment, resilience. Designing space for people to come together intimately, recreationally, educationally, socially, is the core of what we do. The power of Klinenberg’s book to the design community is the illustration of the long-lasting effects of well-designed space on people’s lives.

In a world filled with frenetic polemics — “THIS is the thing that will save democracy!…” — Klinenberg’s book is more of a meditation on what is good about public space, occasionally lamenting what has been lost in the digital age. He also infuses the book with the personal, including stories of how attending his kid’s soccer games has enriched his entire family through the casual but intentional social connections each of them has made.

For Klinenberg, this is clearly a personal passion as well as a professional research project. Framing his views within the context of the current political climate, he states: “As a citizen, I can’t help asking how we rebuild the foundations of civil society in the kind of diverse, democratic nations we find throughout the world today. As a student of history, I wonder how we can move beyond violent opposition to a perceived nemesis and develop a sense of shared purpose based on commitments to justice and decency. As a parent of young children, I wonder whether we can repair things so that they will have a chance to flourish and not spend their lives cleaning up our mess.”

2016 Design Pittsburgh Honor Award Winner Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Knoxville Branch.  GBBN Architects.  Image by Massery Photography, Inc.

Klinenberg spends the next 200 pages advocating for social infrastructure to counteract some of these insidious forces. If you have ever had thoughts similar to his (I certainly have), it is worth diving in.

While the book is dense with ideas, it is by no means dry, and Klinenberg has clearly spent a good amount of time researching the book. I came away from reading it with both a renewed sense of the importance of his central argument as well as a lengthy reading list. References range from fellow sociologists Cass Sunstein and Robert Putnam to Alexis de Tocqueville, Jane Jacobs, and Oscar Newman. Along the way, he touches on nearly all of the social ills that have contributed to or exacerbated our inequalities and physical separation: racism, class difference, technology, social media, climate change, and the attendant natural disasters.

He offers as the counterpoint those spaces that have allowed people to overcome and mitigate these ills: religious institutions, public schools, community centers, and libraries. It is the hallowed library that makes numerous appearances in the book. Again and again, the library surfaces as the refuge, the hub, the sanctuary where people from all walks of life find much more than books. For example, after Hurricane Sandy displaced residents found shelter, power, and outreach at a local Staten Island branch while their homes sat uninhabitable.

Carnegie Library Downtown & Business.  Image courtesy Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

The downtown branch, of course, is not one of Andrew Carnegie’s 1679 original libraries erected in the United States at the height of his philanthropy, but its constant stream of patrons speaks to the importance of the library as a social – as well as intellectual, educational, and recreational – space in Carnegie’s adopted hometown. As students of Pittsburgh’s history will know, Klinenberg takes the title of his book from Carnegie himself. The steel magnate and philanthropist referred to public libraries as “Palaces for the People,” donating millions of dollars to their construction.

Recognizing the need for a balanced view of history in reference to the library’s “patron saint” and elsewhere in the book, Klinenberg is careful to elucidate America’s complex past. Carnegie was no actual saint and he made those millions by “violently suppress[ing] unionized workers during the Homestead strike, and lobb[ying] fiercely against the income tax and other government efforts to address inequality.” Later, he attempted to provide for (or pacify) these same workers by building libraries, many, like my local Homestead branch, with additional amenities such as community rooms, music halls, and swimming pools.

And yet, the value of libraries to Pittsburgh and many other communities cannot be denied. That peculiar civic institution is nearly the only space where people from all backgrounds can gather without suspicion or question and exists outside of our capitalism-based economy. In one particularly astute observation, Klinenberg notes, “If, today, the library didn’t already exist, it’s hard to imagine our society’s leaders inventing it.” (37)

Despite the common library thread, other issues get siloed into specific chapters in the book. Klinenberg discusses racism in Chapter Five, ageism in Chapter Four, and climate change in Chapter Six; in reality these issues cut across every interaction we share and subsequently, nearly every design decision we make. Klinenberg’s constant reiteration that libraries can address all of these deeply rooted challenges in one way or another is at once believable and a bit too simplistic. In the end, the sum total of the book is vastly greater than its collection of parts.

The book as a whole has a rather optimistic tone while Klinenberg is referencing successful projects and initiatives. It is in the conclusion that he argues his case with more intense fervor. Here, the author addresses head-on the greatest challenge to our physical social infrastructure: the internet and its self-appointed social space spokesperson, Mark Zuckerberg. Can Facebook and good public space co-exist? The irony is that many people who visit our public libraries use them for their free and accessible internet connection.

Does simply being in the same space while we’re online make a difference? Klinenberg seems to think so. He isn’t advocating social engineering or a kind of forced gathering of disparate communities. This is about providing space for connection to happen organically. “People do not usually volunteer in a community garden, teach children to read, attend a church picnic, or participate in a rally for better local air quality because they’re trying to generate social cohesion. But, inevitably, the process of doing these activities creates or strengthens social bonds.” As many of us who design space know well, it is in the use of the space that community gets built.

Maybe we’re starting to see a glimpse of that in our own city. As construction begins on the massive Cap project to bridge across 579 and knit the Hill District back into the fabric of downtown (undoing the massively discriminatory bulldozing of the neighborhood in the 1950s), the city has shown a not-insignificant commitment to social infrastructure. Yes, the project is a park, transportation system, and opportunity for development, but it is the social component that will make this project a success. The project team anticipates that Hill residents will share gathering space with concertgoers and downtown denizens. Not everyone is convinced this will be the panacea for righting past wrongs, but, as Klinenberg’s book deftly shows, providing physical space for social interaction is a good place to start.

Emily is an architectural designer and planner with Perkins Eastman where she works towards building better communities. She is also one of the leaders of Women+ in Design Pittsburgh whose mission is to build equity within the architecture industry and across our allied professions.

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