A movie in Bryant Park in Manhattan. Source: N. David Milder

Our cities need social infrastructure also

People don’t live by water pipes, sewers, street lights, and thoroughfares alone. Social infrastructure is what transforms cities from collections of buildings and roads to communities worth caring about.

Note: This article first appeared on Strong Towns.​

My first summer of living in Waco, Texas, I sat up late one night journaling. It had been about 10 months since leaving Brooklyn. What did I miss, exactly, I wondered to myself as I leaned my head back against my pillow. A few predictable answers filled my mind: public transit, bodegas guarded by one-eyed cats, being able to walk everywhere, my Sunday bike rides to Brighton Beach. Those were all valid, but there was something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I looked out my window. It was late and dark, so there was nothing to see but an empty street. 

And then it dawned on me. Except for a few cars here and there, the street was empty … and this was the problem! I returned to my journal, feeling suddenly emotional. Yes, the (mostly thrift) shopping in New York City was great, as were the restaurants and museums. But the more I reflected, the more I realized that what I missed most were not the commercial and cultural opportunities or experiences; what I missed most were the people. 

I missed the street performers, the falafel stand attendants, the baristas, the Brooklynites in their complicated outfits, the young African-American men who would blare their boomboxes and do backflips on the Q train from Manhattan to Atlantic Barclays. I missed seeing the little school children in rubber boots scooting home with their nannies in Park Slope, the cyclists I’d race in Prospect Park and the musicians who would fill Union Square Station with the sound of global jazz. 

In short, what I missed most about life in the Big Apple was the visibility of other people. Of course, it wasn’t all roses. I definitely experienced stranger fatigue and difficulty building second-ring relationships, but compared to a city where parked cars, underutilized parking lots, and stray animals were more visible than human beings, it was a tradeoff I could accept. 

This kind of human visibility in a city is not an accident. Like any city, what you see is a direct result of what you plan and design for, of the kind of infrastructure that you invest in. Cities dominated by cars emerge because the design and infrastructure investments of those cities prioritize vehicular movement. Cities dominated by people emerge because cities have invested in social infrastructure: the kind that prioritizes the movement, visibility, and interactions of human beings.  

Yet, this kind of infrastructure investment gets much less attention or money, and this is a mistake. Social infrastructure is what transforms cities from collections of buildings and roads to communities worth caring about, and that’s the sort of infrastructure investment that our cities need more of. 

What Is social infrastructure?

Properly understanding the value of social infrastructure must begin by first broadening our understanding of infrastructure. In their paper, “Social Infrastructure and the Public Life of Cities,” Alan Latham and Jack Layton define infrastructure as, “the background structures and systems that allow social, economic, cultural and political life to happen.” Their definition is helpful precisely because it points to a broader definition of infrastructure than what most of us might be familiar with. When I first heard the word “infrastructure,” I definitely thought about sewers, lights, roads, and communication networks.

These utilities play an important role in the city, but if you recognize a city as an ecosystem (a container for human life and activity), it becomes clear that this list is not comprehensive, for cities are ecosystems for human beings and human beings need more than roads, lights, and good plumbing to build a community. We need public spaces and places that meet our social needs to observe, mingle, and interact with other people. Here are a few characteristics that we can look for to recognize good social infrastructure in our cities: 

  • Embedded: Social infrastructure should be tucked inside neighborhoods, easily accessible by foot or bike, anchored by practical destinations and attractive to different kinds of users at different times of day. Social infrastructure doesn’t just have to be destinations, it can also be connective in nature. River walks, running paths between neighborhoods, and truly safe bike paths all count as social infrastructure. 
  • Attractive: Social infrastructure should be extremely attractive from an aesthetic and neurological perspective. This means ensuring features like trees and flowers, street lights, trash bins, adequate signage or paint, and accessibility features for visitors with strollers or wheelchairs. Put simply: people should want to spend time in these spaces. 
  • Agile: Few things ruin a public space more than being too specific. Good public, social spaces will be flexible, able to accommodate a variety of uses without being designed in such a way to favor one use over another. Public spaces are containers for human expression and activity. Like a lounge or living room, they provide just enough structure to prevent unwanted uses while enabling a variety of unpredictably creative activities.  

Why invest in social infrastructure?

Often, social infrastructure is treated as the “icing on the cake” of a productive city. But perhaps it’s time we make social infrastructure more of an investment priority. Here are three reasons why. 

First, because social infrastructure enhances the public sphere in such a way that makes it safe and inviting. For those of us living in the developed world, knowing that we can count on a relatively high level of safety in the world outside of our private homes is something we take for granted, but if it were missing, if we could not leave our homes without fear of danger, it would radically change our lives. 

Neighborhoods where the outside world is perceived as a threat are psychologically draining and pose an incredibly high cost to any kind of meaningful participation, bonding, bridging, or stewardship. Social infrastructure is the kind of infrastructure that can guide a community towards more amiable coexistence, that makes possible the kind of loose ties between strangers that ensure trust, collaboration, and peace. 

Second, social infrastructure allows us to adopt what I call “second-gear” presence in the city. Second-gear presence is the leisurely, relaxed mode of being that’s possible when a city offers adequate green space, plazas, and public squares. It’s the opposite of first-gear presence, which involves moving as efficiently and quickly as possible (usually in a car) from one destination to another with a clear goal in mind. 

Both gears are important, but second-gear presence is harder to come by in car-oriented cities. It’s the kind of presence we inhabit when we visit highly walkable American or international cities, college campuses, and destinations like Disneyland. In these environments, one can explore these places with spontaneity and curiosity, without having to worry about executing a specific goal. Transactions might happen, but they are not necessary to justify our presence. Exploring, wandering, and observing are sufficient ends in themselves. 

A good example of this that I’ve seen recently is the Pearl District in San Antonio. Closed to cars, this neighborhood provides plenty of options for shopping and dining, but it’s also just a pleasant place to meander, people watch, and relax, especially so because it’s connected to the city’s popular River Walk. On a recent visit to see a friend, we got lunch and croissants, then walked around for nearly an hour simply because the infrastructure made such a meander possible. 

Finally, social infrastructure makes it possible for humans to safely exist around strangers in public. Humans are highly social creatures and while we prefer in general to be around people we know, we also need spaces that make it easy to be around strangers. We need spaces that allow us to experience sociality without the pressure to be social. Also important is how such spaces allow for positive exposure and interactions between people from different groups, whether those be groups based on socioeconomics, race, age, or gender. 

A walk around Manhattan’s Washington Square Park illustrates this point nicely: At the basketball court by the train station, you can see men from all walks of life shooting hoops. At the park just a few blocks east, you can find New Yorkers across the full spectrum of class, race, and gender mingling: playing chess, skateboarding, picnicking, protesting, drum-playing…who knows? Who cares? It’s Washington Square Park. 

Of course, these kinds of spaces can also become the sites for social hostility, but that fact doesn’t undermine the fact that they are needed. How they are maintained, stewarded, and integrated within the city at large remains an equally important but separate conversation.  

Ultimately, investing in social infrastructure is less about money and more about cultivating a richer, more robust vision of human flourishing in the city. For too long, the American definition of a successful city has emphasized connecting consumers from the private sphere of their homes to the sphere of work and consumption (i.e., the strip mall). These spheres are necessary, but they are not sufficient for true public life. As social beings, we also need spaces in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities that remind us of what matters most at the end of the day: not the transactions that shape our lives, but our connections and relationships with the people around us.

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