Palaces for the People
Why I picked it up: I'm interested in how spaces work, and I am also interested in inequality, the levels of civic engagement and discourse in our country, and health and wellness. This book is a confluence of these things, so I picked up a copy as soon as I heard about it.
What you need to know: The author studies what he calls social infrastructure, "the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact." It isn't the same thing as social capital, which measures people's relationships and interpersonal networks. Instead, it is about the physical conditions that determine how easy it is for that social capital to develop … or not.
There is an increasing numbers of academic research that documents the physical and mental benefits of social ties, but are there physical mechanisms that make those social ties easier to develop? Klinenberg says yes.
He goes on to make a case that a strong social infrastructure is increasingly critical because when it fails it can have catastrophic consequences for people's health and wellbeing: as a chronic condition of unattachment and/or when disaster hits (such as a natural disaster).
So what are the places that promote social infrastructure? He suggests the places we would call "third places," such as playgrounds, libraries, parks, etc., as well as the community organizations that meet in those places. These places can be designed to promote interactions in ways that benefit residents.
This book kept reminding me of The Vanishing Neighbor, by Marc Dunkelman (reviewed here March 2018), which suggested that communities are struggling as Americans have reduced their "middle-ring" friendships of casual acquaintances and friendships. When that support social network fails, so do communities. Similarly, when the social infrastructure that supports the "middle-ring" friendships fails, so do the support networks that help all of us over the long-term and in times of crises. Both books make the case that we are facing challenges, and that we need these community places and networks to engage with each other to our mutual benefit.
Implications for museums: Theoretically, museums would be great places to build social infrastructure (and some do). What breaks my heart in this book is that Klinenberg doesn't mention museums once. He does, however, love libraries, and speaks at length about how they serve as crucial social infrastructure for many. Indeed, this book could serve as a love letter to libraries.
It begs the question, however, of how and why we have structured our museums historically so that museums are simply not even considered part of the social infrastructure of our communities. We can do better. We must.
Read or skip? If you are interested how place and community intersect for greater wellbeing, and/or if you liked The Vanishing Neighbor, you should pick it up. There is a lot in the book to think about and consider. I only scratched the surface in this review. Otherwise, this review is likely sufficient.
Full citation: Klinenberg, Eric. Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. New York: Crown, 2018.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
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I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the lands of the Duwamish people, whose ancestors have lived here for generations. I thank them for their ongoing care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.