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26 September 2018

Palaces for the people: how shared spaces improve lives

The centuries-old idea of sharing space is today a furious call to action.

By John Harris

In July 1995, a tropical heatwave hit Chicago and 739 people died as a result. When the deaths were analysed, they seemed to correlate with segregation and inequality in the usual ways: eight out of the ten urban areas with the highest death rates were largely African-American, and had high levels of poverty and crime. Yet, as the US sociologist Eric Klinenberg explains in this book, other elements of the statistics were not nearly as predictable. “Three of the ten neighbourhoods with the lowest heatwave death rates were also poor, violent and predominantly African-American,” he writes, “while another was poor, violent and predominantly Latino… they were more resilient than Chicago’s most affluent areas. Why?” His answer comes down to “diners, parks, barbershops, grocery stores… block clubs and church groups”: the shared spaces he calls “social infrastructure”.

Superficially, this might appear such a simple point that it verges on the banal – but as the book explains, in America, Britain and beyond, many of these places are in sharp decline, partly due to national and local governments leaving them to wither away. When Klinenberg visits a public library in New Lots, a poor enclave of Brooklyn: “The shelves, ceilings, stairwells and wall panels are wearing out. Wires are exposed. There are rusted toilets and sinks in the bathroom.” Nonetheless, vibrant collective experiences are still happening there: he watches an event organised by the Library Lanes Bowling League, in which rival teams of seniors in different locations knock down virtual skittles on connected Xboxes. At a time when a quarter of Americans aged 65 or over live alone, such little things mean a lot.

Palaces of the People – the title is taken from the Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s description of the hundreds of libraries he funded – is essentially a calm, lucid exposition of a centuries-old idea, which is really a furious call to action. Its apparent role-model is Jane Jacobs’s enduring work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and like that book, its text is full of small examples of things going both wrong, and right. Klinenberg describes the often overlooked differences between schools that create an area for parents to socialise after they drop their kids off, and those that expect everyone to quickly disperse. He points out that sports clubs are among the strongest social glue human beings have come up with. And he bemoans the awful record of Los Angeles, where half of low-income households lack immediate access to a park or playground, and the city’s public parks are in need of $21.5bn of improvements.

Clear lines are drawn between this kind of civic emptying-out, the polarised condition of US politics, and the extent to which its furies are exacerbated online. As Klinenberg sees it, the hours we spend on the internet are as much a symptom of the demise of shared spaces as its cause. But he eventually points an angry finger at the northern Californian billionaires who have so far failed to follow the example set by the philanthropists of yesteryear.

Klinenberg is almost too polite to hammer the point home, but he gets there: “It’s hard to find Carnegie’s sense of goodwill and civic-mindedness in today’s Silicon Valley, where the entire industry depends on technology developed by the government – the internet – and a publicly funded communications infrastructure… How much more wealth do they need to accumulate before they are ready to help?”

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There is one curious omission: the idea of co-living, increasingly popular in Europe and the US, whereby people live in communities built around shared space, from allotments to dining rooms. Among retirees in particular, the concept works as a bulwark against loneliness and ill health; in this country, it demands a sidelining of British reserve, and the ingrained idea that hell is other people – but its pioneers and converts are right to celebrate it as a self-evidently great idea.

With the best will in the world, however, most people have their limits. One of Klinenberg’s examples of the glories of togetherness comes from Iceland, and its huge public pools. “The diversity of users, and the rule that everyone must strip naked and wash off in a public area before entering the tubs, make the pools an equalising force in Icelandic society,” he says. Horses for courses and all that, but if that’s the utopia on offer, this particular northern European would rather be glum and lonely. 

John Harris writes for the Guardian

Palaces For The People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society
Eric Klinenberg
Bodley Head, 288pp, £18.99

This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis