Eric Klinenberg’s book takes its title from what Andrew Carnegie said that he wanted the libraries that he funded, over 2,500 built in the late 1800s and early 1900s (mostly in the United States), to be. This sentiment was borne out in the libraries, many of which had high ceilings, big windows and were often some of the most architecturally beautiful buildings in the towns and cities they were built in. If you are old enough you may have memories of Victoria’s own Carnegie Library – the building at the corner of Yates and Blanshard – that used to be the main branch of the Victoria Public Library (794 Yates Street – Wikipedia has a list of Carnegie Libraries in Canada).
Although not about placemaking per se I think many of the book’s topics and discussions touch on the underlying principles of placemaking because they are so intertwined with the factors that support social infrastructure. Klinenberg states that “[W]hen social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves.” It is not the same as ‘social capital’ – a “concept commonly used to measure people’s relationships and interpersonal networks – but the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops” (all quotes from page 5 of the book).
Interestingly, in light of the heat dome in 2021 that had such tragic consequences in the Pacific Northwest, including here in Victoria, Klinenberg first got interested in the subject of social infrastructure because of his graduate research into a deadly heatwave in Chicago in 1995. When he began to delve deeper into the data on the over 700 excess deaths that occurred between July 14th to 20th he found that neighbourhoods that looked to be quite similar demographically and economically often had quite different death rates. He found he could draw no conclusions from simply looking at the data and so he turned off the computer and went to the streets (shades of Jane Jacobs and Strong Towns here, folks!). What he concluded was that in the neighbourhoods with healthy ‘social infrastructure’ – “physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact” – people were less vulnerable and death rates were lower – even if they were poor or unemployed at similar rates to nearby neighbourhoods.
Although much of the book is to do with interior spaces (libraries, schools) where placemaking is not applicable there are also chapters on community gardens (Healthy Bonds), enhancing the area around buildings with plants and trees (Safe Spaces) and climate mitigation projects that do double duty as social infrastructure (Ahead of the Storm – an example is Rotterdam’s Waterplein Benthemplein).
The book makes for an engaging read with lots of inspiring anecdotes about projects of varying degrees of success. And in light of the COVID pandemic Klinenberg’s assertions of the importance of these places and organizations where all are welcome and nobody has to pay to gain entry seem even more valid and essential. In his final chapter, Before We Lift the Next Shovel, he voices an urgent plea for those controlling the purse strings of infrastructure development to authentically engage with the public that such infrastructure will be for to make sure that it actually reflects what they want and need to support healthier, more inclusive and more socially cohesive societies and neighbourhoods.
At a local level I find myself thinking about the reduction in library services since the pandemic. During the winter (October to April) all Greater Victoria branches used to be open on Sunday, now only two are. None of the community spaces at any of the branches are open for booking. One local branch (Oak Bay) was closed for several months due to asbestos concerns*. Similarly, much of the University of Victoria campus is closed on weekends and in the evenings (all of the merchants in the SUB with the exception of Cinecenta and Felicitas, most of the food outlets elsewhere except for the new dining facility) making it no longer a destination for members of the public that it was in the past. Places where a person can just go and ‘hang out’ indoors without having to spend much/any money are increasingly rare.
In conclusion, although this book is not primarily about placemaking I think it has a lot to say about the need for public spaces – whether indoors or out – to be designed, located and implemented with input from the communities they are to serve rather than left to ‘tech bros’, superstar architects or adherents of potentially outdated and harmful practices that may sound fine in theory but often end up being inequitable, discriminatory and racist if not implemented carefully and thoughtfully (CPTED for example).
Klinenberg was featured on 99 percent invisible in 2019. https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/palaces-for-the-people/
*Update: During April 2023 a pop up branch of the library opened in the Monterey Centre (1442 Monterey Avenue) to replace, in a limited way, the services of the closed Oak Bay branch which is located in the same building. The staff did a great job but it was really just a place to pick up holds and had no computer access, a very limited collection of books to browse and no programming. The library re-opened for service on June 6, 2023 much to the delight of patrons from the surrounding area who call this their ‘home branch’.
Guest Author Bio
Susan Martin. Longtime resident of #YYJ who delights in exploring every corner and cul de sac of our beautiful city. Thinks that walking is one of the best medicines in existence and tries to get a dose of it each day. Keenly interested in how our built environment affects the health of individuals, neighbourhoods and societies.
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