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Towards a new era of social infrastructure

Eric Klinenberg, author of the book, Palaces for the People (in Spanish, Palacios para la Gente) talks about how, around the world, communities share the same tendency towards becoming more fragmented, divided and conflictive. The BBC warns that class segregation is increasing in England; Today Online reports the lack of trust among the people of India; and Foreign Policy notes that increasing social stratification in China has created an unequal society where opportunities for social mobility are minimal.

For its part, in Latin America, the increase in private security services, on the one hand, and the perception of young people about the lack of security and trust in their communities, as well as their few opportunities, together show the deep wound in our tissue.

What is social infrastructure and why is it important?

Social infrastructure is a fundamental pillar to recover the sense of community and common good in societies. Unlike the concept of social capital, which measures the value of individuals' relationships, social infrastructure is the set of physical places and organizations that shape our interactions. That is, what makes social capital possible. When the social infrastructure is robust, all kinds of social interactions are encouraged that help build bonds between individuals, turning the abstract concept of community into a true life experience. Conversely, when the social infrastructure deteriorates, individuals tend to isolate themselves from each other.

An important distinction that Klinenberg makes in his book is that the empirical evidence is that social cohesion is only achieved through repetition of human interactions, especially those we enjoy, as well as joint participation in common projects.

Unlike spaces that are mainly oriented towards shopping (such as supermarkets) or that are too large (such as a public square in a large city), social infrastructure has a greater effect when it is at the neighborhood or neighborhood level, where the possibilities of meeting and reconnecting with members of our community increase.

The spaces that form the social infrastructure

Cities have made access to energy, water, transportation and food much more efficient, as well as jobs and recreational activities. However, and especially those areas that have grown rapidly, have prioritized housing, communication routes and consumption areas over those spaces where community ties are formed. Additionally, the reduction in security, migration and the accelerated increase in the time we spend on the internet, TV and social networks, have contributed to governments and communities not building the number of physical spaces that allow interaction between their members.

The spaces that form the social infrastructure of a community are those that allow human interaction, especially in common learning, play or work activities. These can be public or private, and include libraries, parks, cafeterias, and schools (see table). An important feature of the best spaces is that they are neighborhood scale (unlike large cultural or commercial spaces), which allows anyone to visit within walking distance, thus encouraging neighborhood gatherings.

The case for investing in social infrastructure in our times

In his book, Kinenberg exposes the different ways in which these spaces form communities that are more prosperous, safe and resistant to natural and health risks. For example, she makes the case for how inner-city Chicago neighborhoods with similar incomes and demographics fared very differently in the face of a 1995 heat wave that caused 739 deaths—seven times as many as Storm Sandy. Studying them, she found that those with the best social infrastructure had 6 times fewer deaths per capita than neighborhoods with shabby shops, public spaces, and sidewalks.

Studying the phenomenon, she determined that in communities that fostered neighborly ties, people at risk were much more likely to find a concerned neighbor knocking on their door, or with whom to turn in the absence of air conditioning or liquids.

As in Chicago, different cases show the effect of a good social infrastructure on security, economic development, educational performance of young people, as well as on the reduction of depression and addictions. And the trend, as jobs become less stable, and as access to information and digital experiences becomes more widespread and cheap, is for their value to grow even more, both because they are those that enable more complete human interactions, and where we access to resources and experiences, such as collaborative learning or play, which by their nature are social.

Investing is not enough: The value of good design and effective management

Various cities around the world are responding to this opportunity, investing in parks, youth centers, and modern media libraries, in many cases with surprising results. However, investing in them is not enough, and for these spaces to have the expected impact they must have two central elements: First, they must have a good design, based on the needs of the users, as well as attractive and flexible for accommodate different uses over time. Second, and more importantly, they must be managed to serve their community in a dynamic (rather than bureaucratic) way and by teams with the capacity, vocation, and resources to shape the spaces, materials, and programming in conjunction with their community.

Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How Social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarization and the decline of civil life, is a sociologist and Director of the Public Knowledge Institute at New York University


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