Palaces for the People, Part 3: school entries that discourage social interaction

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. I have been highlighting a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

Discussing how schools are constructed, Klinenberg contrasts a school in Greenwich Village that was set up in such a way to foster community between parents and guardians versus a suburban setup that discouraged interaction:

But when the academic year began we quickly noticed some major flaws in the otherwise excellent social infrastructure. The campus, while beautiful, is mostly off-limits to parents, who are expected to drop off their children at the entrance and are allowed into classrooms on special occasions only. There’s some space for casual interaction on the sidewalk in front of the school, but it’s not designed for socializing, especially not at the beginning or end of the school day. The reason will likely be familiar to everyone who’s spent time in large suburban schools: the entryway is dominated by a long, roundabout driveway, and every day hundreds of parents drive through it to drop off their children and quickly pull away. It’s a remarkably efficient system – so efficient, in fact, that parents have little opportunity to get to know one another on or around the school grounds. (85)

If the name of the game is efficiency – get as many kids as quickly as possible in and out of school – this might be the best physical setup. If the goal is to encourage community and an interactive time before and after school, this may be the worst way to do it. But, if suburbs are often about “moral minimalism” where residents build community by leaving each other alone, perhaps this is the plan all along.

Looking at how schools could foster community and social interaction makes sense as many American kids and families are already interacting with public schools. With some tweaks to the physical environments of schools, even more social interaction and community might be encouraged. The flip side of this is whether schools continue to be centers of community and interaction even when people do not have children.

This reminds me of the TED talk on suburbs by critic James Howard Kunstler. He has a bit where he shows a picture of the exterior of a school in Las Vegas. From the particular angle, it looks like a prison. This is part of Kunstler’s argument: buildings that cut themselves off from the rest of the community do a disservice to the public. A school that limits social interaction in favor of cars misses an opportunity.


Palaces for the People, Part 2: place-based rather than people-based interventions

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. For a few days, I am highlighting a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

In a discussion of policing, crime, and spaces, Klinenberg highlights research showing resources put into improving places can improve social relations:

The Philadelphia studies suggest that place-based interventions are far more likely to succeed than people-based projects. “Tens of millions of vacant and abandoned properties exist in the United States,” write Branas and his team. Remediation programs “make structural improvements to the very context within which city residents are exposed on a daily basis.” They are simple, cheap, and easily reproducible, so they can be implemented on a larger scale. What’s more, they impose few demands on local residents, and the programs appear to pay for themselves. “Simple treatments of abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned conservative estimates of between $5.00 and $26.000 in net benefits to taxpayers and between $79.00 and $333.00 to society at large, for every dollar invested,” their paper in the American Journal of Public health reports. It’s not only more dangerous to leave the properties untended; it’s also more expensive. (70)

Imagine vacant properties in many American cities, particularly in the Rust Belt, transformed. Keeping up the property over time could help show local conditions will not be allowed to decline. Even as residents may come and go, the community is committed to the lot.

But, I wonder how much push back there would be from the public. A typical approach to struggling communities is to argue for more job and educational opportunities. If this works, it gives people options and skills they can then use anywhere over time. Such investments are viewed as showing residents that the community cares about their lives. Would putting resources into places be perceived in the same way?

Generally, infrastructure is pretty invisible in American life. Focusing on vacant properties, very noticeable to both people in the community as well as visitors, might help reverse that.

Palaces for the People, Part 1: building relationships in physical proximity

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. In the next few days, I will highlight a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

In a discussion of relationships and social media in Chapter One, Klinenberg concludes:

Building real connections requires a shared physical environment – a social infrastructure. (41)

Research on social media tends to back this up: meaningful or lasting relationships on social media are often grounded in offline interactions and relationships. Social media may be particularly good at helping people maintain connections over time but many social media relationships have roots in or also take place offline. These deeper connections take place in particular settings. Physical spaces can help foster social interaction and togetherness.

This reminds me of Herbert Gans’ conclusions about the lives of teenagers in an early Levittown: there was nowhere for them to go. If there are not tangible physical spaces for young adults to gather (a role formerly played by the shopping mall), then the smartphone and social media look more attractive. Communities may struggle to find places for teenagers to go and be welcome – for example, even shopping malls did not necessarily want them – but the alternative may be worse.