The Atlantic posted an opinion piece by sociology professor Eric Klinenburg on America’s failing social infrastructure. Klinenburg believes that America is neglecting places like libraries, parks, schools and playgrounds. These are critical places where people meet and form friendships and connections. These social connections are the basis of public life. Klinenburg’s piece is similar in tone to Robert Putnam’s paper Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Both authors share Jane Jacobs’ belief that social connections are critical to creating healthy communities. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote: “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”
Halifax’s public library is a stunning example of social infrastructure. But slick architecture and big budgets aren’t needed. Stellarton recently renovated their library and Antigonish built a new library on Main Street. Residents donated money to all three projects. This is a useful reminder – social infrastructure is not just government’s job. Social infrastructure can be supported by private citizens, but it can also be built and operated directly by private citizens. Across Nova Scotia, and across Canada, there are community halls, sports fields, parks and trails run by charities and volunteer groups. At an even smaller level, your house or yard might be a piece of social infrastructure! On top of the physical spaces, there are bands, sports teams, art classes and youth groups, mostly run by volunteers.
Building social infrastructure – and a rich public life – is a never-ending task. But, humans are social creatures. We need social contact to thrive. Our brains are wired to be social, our brains even reward us for being social. So the work to build social infrastructure and social capital has a clear payoff – fun, new friends, and a better community.