Toward a Stronger Social Infrastructure: A Conversation with Eric Klinenberg

Eric Klinenberg is an urban sociologist and the director of the Institute for Public Knowledge (IPK) at New York University. His first book, Heat Wave, compared the social infrastructure of neighborhoods whose residents fared differently during the 1995 disaster in Chicago: many of the hundreds of heat wave-related deaths were isolated, elderly residents living alone in neighborhoods where local support systems were particularly difficult to access. This work has led Klinenberg on a diverse array of research projects, investigating the impacts of consolidated media ownership on local broadcasting in Fighting For Air and dispelling myths about the “extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone” in Going Solo. The research in Going Solo served as a valuable reference during Making Room, the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) project that looked at the mismatch between contemporary household demographics and the regulatory framework limiting the supply of housing units in New York City (click here to see a video of a conversation between Klinenberg and CHPC’s Jerilyn Perine). But the implications of Klinenberg’s work for designers and urbanists extend beyond statistical analysis of demand. His framing of the rise in solo living as a grand social experiment opens up a wide range of design opportunities, from flexible furniture and micro-units to supportive housing facilities and public places.

More recently, IPK, under Klinenberg’s leadership, has been directing the second, analytical phase of Rebuild By Design, an initiative of the President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. The ten interdisciplinary teams selected to propose innovative design ideas for the Northeast are currently learning about the region through a curriculum IPK has developed, which emphasizes both social infrastructure as well as social equity. In the conversation below, Klinenberg outlines the evolution of his work, why disasters reveal underlying conditions, and what he means by social infrastructure and the design opportunities it presents. —C.S.

Klinenberg at the Red Hook Initiative | Photo by Cameron Blaylock
Klinenberg at the Red Hook Initiative | Photo by Cameron Blaylock
Urban Omnibus (UO):

What do you do? What kind of issues are you interested in exploring in your scholarship and writing?

Eric Klinenberg (EK):

By training, I’m an urban sociologist. But I’ve always done other things, ranging from magazine writing and public speaking to thinking about how to make cities work better. Sociologists are generally much better at explaining why things are the way they are and how things go wrong than we are at making things.

I grew up in downtown Chicago in a neighborhood called Old Town, an artsy and complicated neighborhood that was adjacent to both the Gold Coast — the wealthiest part of Chicago — and Cabrini Green, a notorious housing project that was pretty close to 100% African American and overwhelmingly poor.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my neighborhood was changing: a lot of middle class families were moving to the suburbs. My parents made a commitment to staying in Chicago. The public schools were among the worst in the country, and I wound up having the interesting experience of my family being better off than many of my neighbors in my gentrifying neighborhood, and worse off than those of my peers in my fancy private school. I became fascinated by all these urban dynamics.

When I started doing my own research, the first thing I wanted to figure out was what Chicago was, how it worked and how it failed to work. My doctoral dissertation became a book about a catastrophic heat wave in 1995 that killed more than 700 people in a couple days. The book was my attempt to understand some of the surprising consequences of the everyday inequalities that organize Chicago and other cities like it. It was also my attempt to understand how to study a city as big and sprawling as Chicago.

I was always struck by the fact that, historically, urban sociology has been organized around the hyperlocal studies of communities, analyzing small units — a block, a bar, a neighborhood, or a social group — as separate from the rest of the city. For me, what makes cities so interesting and difficult to get your hands around is that they are big and full of complicated relationships and networks that work across space and time. I was interested in looking beyond any particular place or group to the connections between them. The intellectual challenge of Heat Wave was the analysis of Chicago at multiple levels during one distinct moment in time.

The research I do doesn’t just happen to take place in an urban neighborhood. It really tries to take the city as something that needs to be analyzed and understood as a complex social system. In that sense, the Heat Wave project launched a whole set of projects that range from a book about the media to a book about people who live alone to new research about climate change and cities. All of those, in some way, are rooted in that first project.

Englewood, Chicago | Images via <a href="">Ian Freimuth</a> (left) and <a href="">Jordan Cooper</a> (right)
Englewood, Chicago | Images via Ian Freimuth (left) and Jordan Cooper (right)

You’ve written that Going Solo came out of Heat Wave but led to unexpected results. How so?


Heat Wave was a book about old, vulnerable, largely poor people living in the most abandoned urban neighborhoods in Chicago. As a 25-year-old social scientist, I was stunned to discover that living alone, aging alone, and dying alone was so rampant in Chicago. I thought that this trend probably indicated something about how estranged we’ve become as a society. I presumed that the universe of people living alone was a universe of elderly, frail, poor people who were isolated. Once I dove into the question of who lives alone, how old they are, where they live, what their economic situation and class identity are, what their quality of life is, how lonely and isolated they are, I realized that I had gotten the story wrong.

The great majority of people who live alone are actually relatively affluent and secure. On average, they spend more time with friends and neighbors than people who are married. They have more disposable income and are more likely to go out and spend time and money in the city. They are disproportionately women. In fact, they express a fairly strong preference for living alone over the other options. Because we have the conditions that allow so many to live alone, we’ve created this new way of living.

The incredible rise of living alone is a historically new phenomenon. You cannot find a single society that has large numbers of people living alone for long periods of time until about the 1950s, and now you find it all over the developed world. Wherever there’s wealth, a welfare state, and cultural independence for women there are large numbers of people living alone. You can’t understand the rise of living alone outside of the rise of urban neighborhoods that concentrate large numbers of people that live alone, because people who want the domestic autonomy of “going solo” also want to be connected with others. People don’t necessarily want to be alone; they’re willing to live alone if they can stay connected in a convenient, easy way. You can live in a relatively small apartment and turn the city into your living room.

The revitalization of American cities in the last 30 years can’t be understood without understanding the rising number of people who are living on their own. People living alone are tremendous consumers of public life; they want to have healthy, exciting public spaces; they want vibrant streets, they go to bars and cafés and restaurants and other third spaces. They have a large demand for the amenities of a vibrant city. Conventionally, urbanists, architects, and planners have thought about making good cities by improving the supply of those things, but we fail to understand and appreciate the demand side: people living a certain way changes the environment. Sociology and the social sciences provide a richer understanding of some of these issues, which might ultimately benefit from the work of hands-on designers.

Image from <a href="">One Size Fits Some,</a> a Citizens’ Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) research project on housing and space standards in New York City, part of the broader <a href="">Making Room initiative</a>
Image from One Size Fits Some, a Citizens’ Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) research project on housing and space standards in New York City, part of the broader Making Room initiative

Why are cities interesting to you as an object of analysis?


If I hear one more person tell me that we need to understand cities because more than half the world’s population lives in cities, I’m going to shoot myself. We know that story.

There was plenty to motivate the study of cities before this statistic started being cited: whether it’s the fact that they are incubators of new ideas and ways of living, or the fact that cities reveal broader social conditions that are more visible than they might be elsewhere because cities are dense and populous. The drama of urban street life makes cities exciting places to be but also extraordinary places to do work.


In addition to cities, disaster seems to loom large in your work. Why do you find disasters to be revealing about contemporary society?


A disaster for a social scientist is akin to a particle accelerator for a physicist; they speed up and make visible conditions that are always present but don’t fundamentally alter the relationship between the different elements. My argument in Heat Wave is that the event helped show that certain poor, abandoned neighborhoods also have an impoverished social infrastructure that makes residents vulnerable all the time. The heat wave demonstrated that fact through the dramatic scene of hundreds of dead bodies at the morgue. When these deaths occurred, the media did not report on them as a revealer of sociological problems. There was skepticism that the deaths were related to the heat; the event was dismissed — no City Council hearings, little national attention — before it ever got analyzed.

Minot, North Dakota | Images via Andrew Filer <a href="">(Left</a> and <a href="">Right)</a>
Minot, North Dakota | Images via Andrew Filer (Left and Right)

My next book, Fighting for Air, is about what’s happened to local media in the age of the Internet and consolidated ownership. During my research, I came across this incredible story of a small town in North Dakota called Minot where a train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed, causing a spill that formed a toxic plume that started to float over the town.

That night, the emergency alert system that was supposed to signal a broadcast warning for everyone in the town didn’t work. So residents relied on the designated emergency broadcaster — one of the local radio stations — for information about what was happening and how to stay safe. It turned out that all of the local commercial radio stations were owned by the same company, Clear Channel, and no one was working in the studio. All of the stations were on autopilot playing pre-recorded content, so the designated emergency broadcaster had no way to get the news out. So if you were living in Minot, North Dakota, that night, with a life-threatening, toxic cloud floating over your house, and you turned on your radio, you would hear golden oldies or classic rock rather than a warning about what you needed to do to stay safe. This was an example of a small disaster revealing something larger in the media ecosystem — where a small number of large companies control much of the broadcast world — not in just one town but across the country.


Your work has implications for policymakers. I’m curious about what you think the implications are for designers, planners, architects, shapers of the physical city?


I rarely write policy papers or make policy recommendations at the end of books. I prefer to write to shake up the way you think and generate questions. I hope the work I do opens up some different way of understanding an issue for policymakers or designers.

For Going Solo, that involved a push to change the way we think about living alone. Rather than thinking about it as a social problem that needs to be solved, I argued that we should accept that there will be enormous numbers of people in big cities living on their own and start to think about how we can design places — apartment units or buildings or neighborhoods or regions — that work better. If we think about the rise of living alone as a social experiment rather than a problem, then all sorts of interesting design possibilities emerge.

We need to think about the social infrastructure as much as we do about the hard infrastructure of power lines and transit systems and communications networks. We need to think about the quality of our sidewalks and streets. We need to think about whether neighborhoods have open, accessible, and welcoming public places where residents can congregate and provide social support during times of need but also every day. There are a lot design opportunities there.

The Rockaway Beach Surf Club became a hub of post-Sandy activity | Image via <a href="">NYC Urchin</a>
The Rockaway Beach Surf Club became a hub of post-Sandy activity | Image via NYC Urchin

For instance, recently Michael Kimmelman interviewed me about this topic. If we want to invest in climate proofing cities, one thing we could do is build enormous sea gates that cost billions of dollars and change the flow of water and possibly the ecosystem itself, which may or may not work as sea levels rise. But another thing that we could do is recognize that when the floods come or the heat wave arrives, the first responders are our family members and neighbors and friends, and whether you live or die might have more to do with whether or not people can find you and help you than with how high the storm surge is.

What if we made investments in community institutions in every neighborhood that have flexible open public spaces that could be adapted to multiple needs? Kimmelman writes in his article that those could be libraries, but they could have any number of primary functions. That’s an architecture of security that’s very different from what we put in place after September 11th, militarizing the city with jersey barriers, surveillance cameras, and ID checkpoints and degrading the quality of everyday life in the process. My concern is that as we come up with new designs for urban security to cope with climate change, we don’t make the same mistake. We should take advantage of the opportunity to design projects that will both protect us during disasters but also enhance the quality of everyday life.


When you started researching Sandy, what were some of the first questions you wanted to ask?


The first thing I wanted to know about were the experiences of different neighborhoods in the city: which places had social infrastructure that allowed residents to support one another and which did not. A big finding from Heat Wave is that neighborhoods with similar demographics, similar levels of poverty, and similar levels of older people living alone had dramatic disparities in outcomes. The places that proved to be very vulnerable were neighborhoods that were really bombed out and abandoned, where the ecology would encourage being isolated at home, whereas similarly poor neighborhoods with robust street life and public space had very low death rates.


For me, it means facilities and conditions that allow connection between people. That includes the quality of sidewalks and streets; the density of commercial establishments; the presence and vitality of community organizations; the quality of local parks and libraries and other public spaces; and even the communications infrastructure. Engineers and planners frame preparedness in terms of hard infrastructure resilience. Obviously, that kind of resilience matters but the human connection might ultimately prove more significant. No matter how much you prepare the hard infrastructure, it inevitably fails, and when it fails we only have each other to rely on.

Rebuild By Design site visit | Photo by Cameron Blaylock
Rebuild By Design site visit | Photo by Cameron Blaylock

Tell me about Rebuild by Design. What’s your institution’s role and what do you hope the initiative will accomplish?


Rebuild by Design is a project that came out of the President’s task force on Hurricane Sandy. The federal government organized a competition to generate innovative design proposals for the Northeast. It began by narrowing the applications of 148 international, multidisciplinary teams to ten. Congress is providing $50 billion of disaster relief funding for this region, so there are potentially resources for all of the final teams not only to design but also to build innovative projects that would make a more sustainable and resilient region.

Here at the Institute for Public Knowledge, we are directing the second phase of the project, the analysis phase. The ten final teams, before they can design anything, have to go through a curriculum that we have designed. It’s a little bit like teaching a master class on the region to these extraordinary, multidisciplinary teams from around the world. I assembled a network of scholars and experts who work on engineering and planning and ecosystems and law, and we have spent the last several months taking the design teams all around the region, from the Jersey Shore to Connecticut, from Hoboken and Jersey City to Red Hook, the Rockaways, and Lower Manhattan. We are trying to introduce a range of problems, needs, and possibilities that we’d like them to consider before they submit designs. On October 28th, all ten of the teams will publicly present three to five design opportunities at NYU and soon after the Secretary of Housing will help select ten that will move forward for potential development. After the projects are selected, the teams will work with local stakeholders and constituents to try to line up the civic support that they’ll need to actually build these things.


In developing this curriculum, what did you think might typically be missing from a post-disaster conversation that you wanted to make sure was introduced into this interdisciplinary initiative?


A guiding principle is that we should design for multiple uses, not just for disaster prevention. It is a remarkable, historically unique opportunity to receive potentially billions of dollars in federal funding to shore up the region. If we only build things that would help during a hurricane or other disaster, we would be missing a chance to improve the quality of everyday life, which has to be our central concern. It’s important to me that the teams develop projects that, if the next big hurricane doesn’t come for another hundred or thousand years, we still feel the tangible benefits from their designs. That is very much not the case for the money we’ve spent since September 11th on homeland security.

The second big principle is to consider how social infrastructure can be a resource for any security project. We need to think more expansively than we normally do about the design challenge of climate change. And we have to bear in mind an explicit and hyper-conscious concern with issues of social equity. The people who are most vulnerable in ordinary times are often the same people who are vulnerable in disasters. We need to make sure that they benefit from the best new designs and ideas. If we fail at this, we won’t be doing our job.

On that front, I anticipate great successes from the teams. They’ve thought in open, creative, and exciting ways. I can’t wait to see their final designs.

Eric Klinenberg is Professor of Sociology at NYU and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. He is also editor of the journal Public Culture and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, and Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media. Klinenberg is currently leading a major research project on climate change and the future of cities. At NYU, he teaches courses on cities, climate change, culture, and media, as well graduate seminars on research methods, ethnography, and urban design. You can follow him on Twitter @ericklinenberg.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Linda Mariano October 23, 2013

The New York City Planning Commission and the mayor or the almost former mayor should be made to read the Eric Klinenberg article. The problem with living in New york is that the developers and the politicians are holding hands and reinventing the city living. They are missing the real stuff neighborhoods are made of – real people who live in a community and have daily connections and share the same resources in each neighborhood. Government should not be able to obliterate the place where we live and transform our sense of place into something we do not recognize or care for -it is not organic to live in tall buildings – or live at the waters edge, we must RETREAT FROM THE waters edges – When will government really be for the people – in a transparent and democratic society

Technology has not replaced real people – not yet anyway!