Op-Ed: Social infrastructure can help save us from the ravages of climate change

Shemika McCoo, right, embraces Kelly Shuler at Community Baptist Church in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Newport N.C. on Sept. 17.
(Tom Copeland / Associated Press)

In coming decades, the world’s most affluent societies will invest trillions of dollars on new infrastructure — sea walls, smart grids, basins for capturing rain water — hoping to mitigate unpredictable mega-storms, droughts, wildfires or other climate disasters. But engineered systems can’t fully climate-proof our densely populated cities. That’s why it is equally important to invest in social infrastructure — the physical spaces where communities gather — as part of our response to climate change.

Social infrastructure is a new concept, but it is just as concrete and vital as the roads and pipes and cables that deliver power, water and transportation. Social infrastructure includes public places such as libraries, parks, playgrounds and schools that are government supported and accessible to everyone. It also includes nonprofit organizations such as churches, synagogues or the YMCA that depend on philanthropic or community support.

When social infrastructure is robust, people are more likely to encounter and interact with friends and strangers. The more that happens, the more trust, cohesion and — when things go well — community develop. When social infrastructure is well-maintained, even those who disagree respect one another’s common humanity — and during disasters that can make the difference between life and death.


We can do better than simple sea walls and reservoirs.

For instance, during recent American disasters, including hurricanes Florence, Harvey and Maria, religious organizations played a vital role. Church communities can quickly convert their houses of worship into relief operations, providing shelter and food as well as checking on the welfare of congregants and neighbors alike. In Houston, right after Hurricane Harvey, members of the Wilcrest Baptist Church set up a donation center, delivered care packages to congregants, and cared for children while their parents helped with recovery efforts. The church even organized large teams of volunteers who helped remove flood-damaged floors, cabinets and furniture and then helped rebuild.

People who do disaster planning have already identified religious organizations as key first responders and linchpins of community resilience — in part because they are ubiquitous. In the United States, there are more than 300,000 religious congregations. “To put that number in context,” writes one group of sociologists, “religious congregations are more common than Subways, McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Wendy’s, Starbucks, Pizza Huts, KFCs, Taco Bells, Domino’s Pizzas, Dunkin’ Donuts, Quiznos and Dairy Queens combined and multiplied by three.”

Secular places and institutions such as libraries, schools and nonprofit organizations also have the potential to fill this role. Unfortunately, though, in recent decades we’ve neglected them. Our branch libraries are more likely to have decrepit bathrooms than, say, back-up generators and wireless mesh networks to provide power and communications when the grid goes down. Community centers have been left with shoddy facilities and low staffing levels. Nonprofit organizations that help poor and frail people are perennially cash-strapped. Few urban neighborhoods currently have social infrastructure that is strong enough for 21st century threats.

A growing network of policymakers and designers have recognized this problem — but they are mostly outside the United States. If we follow their lead, however, we can begin to build social infrastructure into our other system upgrades.

Consider the Dutch port city of Rotterdam, which is a leader in intelligent climate design. Near the city’s Central Station the architectural group De Urbanisten transformed a formerly drab plaza into the Benthemplein Water Square (Waterplein Benthemplein). It consists of three basins — two shallow, one deep — whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding during heavy storms. Ordinarily, such projects are buried; the water simply disappears. The Benthemplein Water Square takes the opposite approach: The basins are the most prominent architectural features.


On dry days, the deep basin doubles as a sport court, and people take in the action from the surrounding tiered seating area. One of the shallow basins contains a raised island resembling a dance floor and the other is designed as a skate park. Other open areas have been filled in with wild flowers, tall grass and small benches, which together create a series of pocket sanctuaries for rest and conversation. There’s a large fountain, a dramatic water wall, and a rain well that feeds into an oversized, stainless steel gutter. There’s always a pleasant flow of water, but in a storm, the full system rushes into operation. It sounds like a powerful waterfall, and looks exactly like what its designers intended: a dramatic work of urban art that can store rainwater and ease the stress on the city’s wastewater system.

Social infrastructure projects can also involve dedicated spending on new initiatives, such as the efforts to revitalize the Los Angeles River. If built according to current plans, the project will enhance flood control and possibly divert more stormwater into the aquifer. But it will also bring ample new recreation space, including a series of two-to-three-acre parks, to some of the most gray, polluted and park-deprived parts of Los Angeles.

Projects such as this are not inexpensive; but as storms intensify, droughts persist for years and sea levels rise, governments will have no choice but to dedicate significant resources to climate security. We can do better than simple sea walls and reservoirs. If we make social infrastructure a part of our climate security strategy, we’ll not only be safer in the next disaster, we’ll be better off every day.

Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University and author of “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.”

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