The Case for Quality Public Spaces for All

Palaces for the People / Random house

“Try to imagine how many relationships have developed because two sets of parents or caretakers pushed their kids on the same swing set on the same afternoon. They might try and stay immersed in their phone, but inevitably they’ll end up acknowledging the humanity of the other person and at some point one will spark a conversation.”

Over time, a mutual trust or friendship develops, and maybe even a life-saving connection. A public space like this playground, where interactions are sparked, differences are spanned, and, as a result, communities are strengthened is what sociologist Eric Klinenberg would call a piece of “social infrastructure.” In a recent Oculus book talk at the Center for Architecture in New York City, Klinenberg discussed his recent book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.

Good social infrastructure does not spring up by chance — it exists because of decades of hard work by activists who believed in the public good and have fought to make spaces like libraries, parks, plazas, playgrounds and childcare centers accessible and democratically available.

Highbridge Park Pool in Washington Heights / NYC Parks and Recreation
Washington Square Park, NYC / Wikipedia

Unfortunately, Klinenberg said, “we’ve neglected our social infrastructure just when we need it most. We are living in it the way a prodigal child lives on their inheritance.” Investment in our social infrastructure means designing, building, programming and maintaining it well. Without committing to these four important steps, we will feel the personal and societal effects of its absence, which could actually have life-threatening effects.

Klinenberg’s doctoral research studied the Chicago heat wave of 1995, in which survival rate in two demographically identical, impoverished neighborhoods was determined by proximity to social infrastructure. The one that fared worse was blighted, with residents living isolated lives, while the one that fared better even than wealthier Chicago neighborhoods had spaces for informal community interaction, making it easier for neighbors to check in on the community’s most vulnerable residents during the heat wave.

Klinenberg’s research on the life-saving benefits of public space lead to a role as research director for Rebuild by Design, the design competition initiated by HUD after Hurricane Sandy. His role was to advise the winning design teams on how to address environmental inequality and incorporate social infrastructure into their designs.

In the wake of the storm, Klinenberg was troubled by the many voices publicly calling for a massive seawall to be built around Manhattan. “364 days a year you don’t need a storm barrier. If you just design for the storm you’re probably going to make the city uglier, less efficient and less pleasant,” he said.

Thanks to Klinenberg’s input and influence, winning projects such as the Big U demonstrated that climate infrastructure can double as social infrastructure. The original design included what was called “a bridging berm,” which featured protective walls that serve as a public park with amenities like athletic fields, space for open air markets, bike and walking paths. “If you completely blow up the concept of climate resilience infrastructure by adding social infrastructure, something really special happens,” said Klinenberg. (Plans for those berms were recently replaced with one that will lift waterfront parks up by 10 feet and create a sea wall).

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

Making and maintaining a well-designed space is not a silver bullet when it comes to successful social infrastructure. True democratic accessibility is a critical component.

Klinenberg worries about the implications of the increase in philanthropist-funded public parks, many of which are well designed, built, programmed and maintained, but remain less accessible to those who would benefit from them the most. “If you are lucky enough to live in a place that gets that philanthropic support your public space gets supercharged,” says Klinenberg, while other spaces must rely on tax dollars, creating a profound difference in the quality of these public spaces.

To ensure all public spaces in a city receives the same investment, Klinenberg argues that we would get a better outcome from taxing billionaires rather than depending on their benevolent whims to create and maintain our social infrastructure.

Speaking to an audience of mostly planners and designers, Klinenberg inevitably got asked a question about the mechanics of social infrastructure — how can we make this happen in our own designs?

Klinenberg urged designers to carefully consider access, what it means to make a space  welcoming to all, and to de-prioritize efficiency. If mingling and chance encounters between people of all different backgrounds are the substance of social infrastructure, then landscape architects and designers should focus on creating the spatial conditions for these to occur.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Ecopolitan.

One thought on “The Case for Quality Public Spaces for All

  1. ecotonelanddesign 06/25/2019 / 1:29 pm

    Three points:

    1. Social infrastructure provides a location for social interaction. It does nothing to really fight inequality, polarization, etc. The foundations for solving such woes is good parents, teachers, and religious voices. You don’t need fancy site facilities to have positive interactions between people.

    2. We landscape architects should be well-trained that the location and design of a park, etc., is critical to its success in offering a venue where people can willingly come together.

    3. Too many public venues are poorly maintained and often fail into some level of disrepair or destruction. So we waste our public funds on parks, etc., that ultimately fail. We tend to do so by leaving out good maintenance practices and simply redesigning the space space over and over (or replacing it with some other “better” development type).

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