As part of my 2024 reading, Palaces for the People came first on my list. I'd hoped to learn more about urban planning in 2023; this book also made last year's list.
I found myself excited through this book. The author, Eric Klinenberg, paints a vivid and expressive overview of the need for social infrastructure such as libraries, community centers, pools, parks, and more.
The impact on the elderly and disadvantaged communities is incredible, particularly from these resources. In the United States, such resources are typically underfunded but broadly used. They provide places of social exposure, which is very much needed in today's online-focused world.
Social exposure is something that helps give everyone access to see, hear, and feel the things someone different from them goes through. The empathy built through direct exposure to different thinking, ways of life, sounds, smells, communication styles, and more is incredibly impactful.
Not only have such resources been decreasing, forced to close from funding limitations despite increased use, but the removal or limitation of these resources has also been used as a cudgel to reinforce inequity.
After the United States Supreme Court ruled on integrating schools and public facilities, municipalities throughout the country continued implementing segregation policies for resources such as public pools. This is credited with at least part of the reason black culture in America has a stereotype of being unable to swim. They had no access to such public infrastructure for a long time.
Insidious or not, once public pools began to be integrated across race and gender lines in the United States, a massive increase in private pool construction occurred. This is according to Klinenber's research.
Social infrastructure is increasingly recognized as critical for maintaining and growing a well-balanced and well-adjusted society. It provides critical resiliency through the willingness of constituents to contribute to and help with communal needs in times of crisis. Things many older Americans decry as "disappearing" from America's social fabric are the same things social infrastructure needs to provide for.
Klinenberg clarifies that social infrastructure is not a silver bullet and is no more or less important than other more physical infrastructure such as sanitation, transportation, healthcare, or energy infrastructure.
This infrastructure includes parks and other open forms of recreation, and the author covers how many large municipal projects, such as water levies or queys, can double as social infrastructure when designed properly. This also ensures broader ongoing public support for the maintenance of both uses.
The world has greatly changed since 2018, when Klinenberg's work was published. We've had a whole global pandemic, after all. But we've seen how much our social infrastructure and social fabric lack the cohesion required to care for our fellow persons' suffering fully.
This will only compound in the coming years as human-impacted climate change continues to emerge.
I recommend this read to anyone interested in urban planning, social infrastructure, or the crumbling fabric of societal willingness to care for "the other."
I made my way through the audiobook, but physical copies remain available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other book retailers.