Art of City Building 2020 – Session 4: A Conversation with Eric Klinenberg

As part of the Art of City Building 2020 conference, we invited Åsa Kachan, Mary W. Rowe, and Jennifer Angel to have a conversation with Eric Klinenburg on social infrastructure.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. The dilemma of “social distancing”

The call to practice “social distancing” told us to stay away from others to stay safe and to survive. The need to maintain physical distance from others to keep the virus from spreading was clear, but social engagement was exactly what we needed to get through the pandemic. Remarkable creativity has emerged from public institutions, community groups and neighbourhoods to drive both social distancing and social engagement. For many this has inspired a new appreciation for the social amenities we once took for granted.

2. Infrastructure and disaster

In the face of a disaster the test is often seen to be how well the infrastructure held up. As important as physical infrastructure is in withstanding extreme events, Eric Klinenberg points out that it is the failure of social infrastructure that can be the most damaging. Defined as the physical places and organizations that shape how people interact, strong social infrastructure in a community supports greater resilience. Eric’s study of the deadly 1995 heat wave in Chicago demonstrated that the highest death rates occurred in communities with the most deteriorated social infrastructure regardless of other demographic indicators.

3. The local library as a resilience centre

Following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy on New York City, Eric supported a design competition called Rebuild by Design. One of the projects pitched was a “resilience centre” where “resilience professionals” would always be available and “aggressively welcoming” to members of the community, especially for youth and seniors. Eric pointed out that the project had actually described the longstanding role of local libraries to a tee (and expressed envy for the magnificent Halifax Central Library where moderator Asa Kachan is Chief Librarian). As many in the chat pointed out, other examples of resilience centres include community centres, coffee shops, corner stores and inclusive communities of faith.

4. Making the case for investing in social infrastructure

If social infrastructure is what can make the difference between life and death in hard times, asked moderator Jennifer Angel, then why is it so hard to convince governments to invest in it? Discussion of ways to pay for social infrastructure included reference to the philanthropy that built Carnegie libraries and speculation on what that could look like today. Others expressed a preference for fairer taxation or highlighted the role of non-governmental agencies.

5. The future of social infrastructure

While COVID-19 has raised the prospect that social infrastructure will be given a higher priority in the post-pandemic period, the significant fiscal constraints that cities will continue to be under creates pressure to reduce costs. In conjunction with other emerging challenges like a changing climate, the future may be a dark age or a shining green new deal. These twin pressures could lead to new norms of multi-use design ensuring co-benefits from both hard and social infrastructures, such as Kate Orff’s Living Breakwaters project that won the Rebuild by Design competition in New York City following Hurricane Sandy.