Neighborhoods that prioritize robust social infrastructure are more connected, and therefore more resilient.
Lauren Nassef Neighborhoods that prioritize robust social infrastructure are more connected, and therefore more resilient.

In November 2016, AIA released the results of a public opinion poll as a supplement to the Institute’s Build America Summit. The takeaway was clear: 94 percent of Americans felt that having supported and well-maintained public buildings was important to the future of their community.

These buildings—community centers, public schools, and libraries, among others—comprise a large chunk of what’s been dubbed “social infrastructure,” and architects are at the forefront of bringing them to life. That birthing process can be a rocky one: Despite praise in polls, on Election Day they’re often regarded as luxuries, not necessities, and kept out of the larger conversation around public funding. Yet if you dig deeper into what social infrastructure really means to a community, you’ll find they are legitimately as valuable as the power grid or the water system.

“My introduction to the idea of social infrastructure came from a study of the heat wave in Chicago in 1995,” says Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. “I discovered that social infrastructure—parks, playgrounds, libraries, healthy sidewalks—could truly be the difference between life and death. Neighborhoods with robust social infrastructure wound up being more resilient, better protected, and better connected than neighborhoods with social infrastructure that was neglected or degraded, even if they were across the street from each other and had practically identical population demographics. When I saw that, I understood that social infrastructure is vital.”

“The private sector can produce social infrastructure: barbershops in African-American neighborhoods, pubs in England, coffee shops in gentrifying neighborhoods,” he adds. “But there’s very little that we can do to generate businesses that are also social infrastructure; where we have leverage is in the domain of public institutions and public projects. And, frankly, that’s the best place to make an impact anyway.”

The Need to Prioritize

Case in point: Manhattan Beach Library in Manhattan Beach, Calif., designed by Johnson Favaro. It’s a testament to the value of good design, but also to the role an architect plays in pushing community leaders to make smart choices for their citizens.

“Infrastructure across the board needs to be rebuilt and updated,” says Steve Johnson, AIA, principal at Johnson Favaro. “But what’s just as important—and takes just as much leadership—is helping a community plan, build consensus, and prioritize.”

The library was completed in 2015, but the project originally emerged in 2008 as part of a comprehensive master plan. The city commissioned the firm to review all its public facilities, including libraries and parks, and help craft a strategy to recover from decades of neglected investment.

“Most of the facilities dated back to the 1960s, when land in California was plentiful,” Johnson says. “You’d see a big empty piece of land, plop a single-story building there, throw in a surface parking lot, and expand in whichever direction you wanted. But then the metropolis that is Los Angeles started gobbling up everything around it; suddenly, open areas and parks and community spaces— social infrastructure—were a real need.”

The city reviewed Johnson Favaro’s recommendations and ultimately decided to replace the previous one-story facility with a modern two-story structure that also opened up new green space near the adjoining civic center. There’s a common refrain that libraries are outdated—“What do they need a library for when they can access everything at home?”—but the response of the Manhattan Beach community to the amenities and space that the new library provided reinforced just how wrong that sentiment is.

“As cities grow denser, places like libraries and parks become necessities,” Johnson says, “especially for families who want to live there but know they’ll lack their own green space or a backyard. They depend on this community infrastructure. And local leadership is realizing that they need to deliver.”

Building Enthusiasm

What can architects do to position themselves as social infrastructure experts? For Joseph G. Tattoni, FAIA, principal at Ikon.5 Architects, it starts with who you know. All architects recognize the need to find good clients, and it’s not hard to guess where public projects come from. “Over the years, I’ve noticed that there are community leaders that are more attuned to building,” Tattoni says. “They like to build; they see it as a sign of progress and advancement. If you can find some of those people, they tend to like to talk to architects. And I love that.”

His firm’s contribution to the social infrastructure space is the Training Recreation Education Center in Newark, N.J. It’s a product of the Newark Housing Authority, which recognized a need for educational programming in the city’s South Ward that would help, as Tattoni puts it, “retool residents for the digital age.” To entice locals to come in and sample these programs, they equipped the facility with a gymnasium, a yoga studio, and a nutritional kitchen.

“It echoes updated programming in public libraries across the country,” he says, “and an emphasis on flexible public spaces within the facilities as much as the core services of the facilities themselves.”

Tattoni acknowledges that his firm wouldn’t be in the conversation for these community projects if they hadn’t reinforced themselves as key players in the field: “With community leaders that have a real propensity to build—and you know who they are; they pass bills—talk to them. Pick their brain. Many times they’re in the position to put forth more of these projects, and they need good architects to get involved.”

Sometimes, one of these designs may turn heads beyond simply strengthening the social fabric of a community. “We designed a library once in a fairly conservative area,” Tattoni says, “and there was a local leader who was pushing for something iconic, edgy, and striking. So we did just that; after it was built, there were stories in the newspaper for months and months about whether it was appropriate or not. One day, I got a call from the conductor of the city orchestra. He said, ‘I’m going to send you tickets to an upcoming performance. I’ve been following the response to the library, and it’s so fantastic that people are finally talking about architecture and its importance on their lives. It’s something we need to discuss all the time, and we didn’t until your design.’ ”

Ups and Downs

Unfortunately, there are just as many stories about projects stalled or halted for reasons big and small.

“I don’t think we’re fully at the point of emphasizing that these buildings are essential infrastructure,” says Taryn Sabia, Assoc. AIA, director of the Florida Center for Community Design & Research and 2019 chair of AIA’s Regional and Urban Design Committee. “We’re still seeing them being value engineered; the design component, at least, is not a high priority.”

Sabia knows the cost of lost social infrastructure firsthand. Her children attended historic Lee Elementary School in Tampa, Florida, which burned down after Hurricane Irma in 2017 and caused a major ripple in the fabric of their community.

“When it closed, you could see the impact it had on the neighborhood,” she says. “It became a dead block. There was no lighting and no activity; vandalizing and crime increased. It really left a hole in the community. You used to see kids playing, parents going in and out, even festivals in the neighborhood. You lost all of that.”

Fortunately, Sabia and other community leaders led a push to ensure the school was fully reimbursed by the insurance company. An architect has even been hired to bring the school back, preserving the exterior while fully modernizing the interior. But the reimbursement process took over a year, and the rebuild has yet to begin.

“These projects do take time, and they take money,” Tattoni says. “But I believe social infrastructure is a growing concern in people’s minds. I’m seeing more RFPs about it all the time. Even if it stems from politicians saying, ‘I have to build a library to get votes,’ that’s fine by me. We don’t care where it comes from, just that it happens.”

“The problem is that social infrastructure has not existed as a category or a concept until now,” Klinenberg adds. “But I think it’s really salient as a policy idea. We’re about to spend billions on infrastructure, here and around the world, and if we embrace the concept of social infrastructure we embrace a whole new set of options for how to invest that money.”

So how can an architect guarantee his or her designs will really count? “Make sure every public project you complete matters,” Tattoni says. “Find out what the community really wants and fulfill those needs. We finished a library project a while ago that was a huge success: a beautiful, natural place for discourse with a park next door. All of a sudden another community in that county wanted one. And then another one! If you make it the best it can be, there will be pressure—good pressure—to repeat it.”