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Can Libraries Save Lives? Eric Klinenberg On Social Infrastructure In Cities
Science | October 17, 2013

Can Libraries Save Lives? Eric Klinenberg On Social Infrastructure In Cities

"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," cities speaker Eric Klinenberg tells Urban Omnibus. In a new series of interviews, the Going Solo author shows how important neighborhood cohesion and social planning is to the health of those living in cities. For example, a new study from University of Michigan researchers found that "people who felt connected to their neighbors had significantly fewer strokes than those who felt alienated." In fact, there was a 48 percent difference in the number of people who had a first stroke and those who didn't. There was a strong correlation between their perceived sense of community cohesion and their ability to live through a tough time. In Klinenberg's book, Heat Wave, he uncovered a similar finding: Those who lived in a tight-knit community with strong social support systems fared better in the wake of the sweltering heat than those who didn't.

As the New York Times explains: "Densely populated [areas with] vibrant commercial strips and social networks, community gardens, parks and well-tended sidewalks...drew people out of overheated homes and into the streets, shops, gardens, parks, and into libraries, too: places where there were things to do and friends to meet." The people who survived the 1995 heat wave in Chicago were those who had people to rely on and a community to support them. “People needed cool places to go,” Klinenberg tells The New York Times. And, they needed people to be with when they found those places.

He doesn't just mean cool in the sense of somewhere with air conditioning—people need places that make them feel comfortable and supported. Hospitals and city-run "cooling centers" may provide the necessities people need during a crisis, but they aren't attractive places to come together with the community. Lively, vibrant urban spaces (like community centers and public libraries, for instance) can function to help connect city dwellers at the best, and at the worst, of times. That's why Klinenberg says that studying the social fabric of a city is just as important as examining its physical infrastructure. "Whether it’s the fact that [cities] 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," he says. "I hope the work I do [on cities] opens up some different way of understanding [city issues] for policymakers or designers."

In his books and his keynotes, Eric Klinenberg addresses the challenges and opportunities presented by the changing social fabric of cities. With the number of solo households on the rise, he shows us how to both appeal to this demographic, and, to adjust our city planning to better meet their needs.He also discusses disaster prevention and relief, showing us how we can better equip our cities to function better in the best of times—and offer support when we need it most. To book Eric Klinenberg for a keynote event, contact The Lavin Agency Speakers Bureau.
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