Why public places like libraries and parks are critical for bringing people together

The Globe and Mail: Last year, Calgary got a new central library. The building is a wonderful piece of architecture. But it’s also a place that brings people together, with programming for kids and teens, film screenings and talks, and advice on everything from how to build your career to how to live with depression.

And this, according to the American sociologist Eric Klinenberg, makes it “social infrastructure,” critical to our collective future. In his fine book Palaces for the People, Klinenberg coins the term social infrastructure for libraries, parks, schools and other public facilities that “shape the way people interact.” He’ll be speaking at two such facilities in Toronto on Sept. 11, the Toronto Reference Library and Evergreen Brick Works.

“The library is just as important as the highway,” he said in a recent interview from his home in New York. And using the term social infrastructure “identifies the crucial role libraries and parks play in our society. It moves them from being seen as luxuries into the nitty-gritty debate about critical systems, which is where they belong.”

Why? Because public places matter. And because bringing people together can literally save their lives. Klinenberg has seen the evidence.

In his book Heat Wave, he traced the impact of a brutal 1995 heat wave on people in his native Chicago. Two specific neighbourhoods on the poor South Side, “looked very similar on paper,” he explained, “but had very different results; one was among the deadliest and one was among the most resilient.” Read more>>