As we hunker down in our respective homes across the planet waiting out the COVID pandemic, it is hard not to wholeheartedly wish to be outside. With other people. Despite orders to do otherwise, people have flocked to parks on warm weekends as signs of isolation fatigue grow. Now more than ever, in a time of uncertainty and adaptation, it is abundantly clear that people need social connection and community spaces to keep sane.
Despite our ongoing desire for civic lives outside of our homes, American public engagement has been on the decline since the 1970s. Harvard Professor of Political Science Robert Putnam empirically tracked the strength of American social connections and trust (otherwise known as “social capital”), and found it has steadily declined as fewer people invested time into communal activities, like attending churches, labor unions, PTAs, and sports clubs.
Over this same period, spending on social infrastructure has declined as well. Trains, parks, libraries, athletic fields, churches—all the physical infrastructure that enables our social lives has seen a decrease in public spending and, thus, quality. Since the 1970s, public investments in infrastructure have declined such that United States now spends less than half of the amount the average European nation does on infrastructure in relation to its GDP. At the same time as this turn away from the public, investment in private amenities has increased—the average new home sizes have grown by 60% since the 1970s despite the shrinking size of the nuclear family.
These larger shifts in public spending and social capital have significant energy implications. The average household’s energy intensity has remained approximately the same as in the 1970s because larger homes offset the benefits of technology efficiency gains—they have more appliances and lights to be powered. Furthermore, our dependence on the private car—caused by long-established underinvestment in public transport—creates 17% of the nation’s total carbon emissions.
Investing in social infrastructure can have significant carbon emission payoffs. In his latest book, NYU Professor of Social Science Erin Klinenberg explored the Lafitte Greenway as a case study of a strategic social infrastructure investment that decreased carbon emissions in the city of New Orleans. The Greenway was built to connect six socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods through one long, multiuse park. The park provided new, safe walking and bike trails to encourage greater integration and cohesion between the neighborhoods. As a result, after the Greenway was built, New Orleans became the city with the fifth largest bike commuter population, seeing a 94% increase in the number of people cycling to work from 2010 to 2018. Here, social infrastructure drew people into the park to socialize more diversely, and out of their cars to commute more sustainably.
Investment in social infrastructure can not only bolster emissions reductions, but also can aid better adaptation to the changing climate. During the Chicago 1995 heatwave, Klinenberg found that three of the ten neighborhoods with the lowest death rates were areas made up of predominantly low-income people of color. These areas had lower rates than even the wealthiest areas of Chicago. This resilience came from the neighborhoods having invested in ample social infrastructure. People left their homes more often to utilize the public spaces and knew each other well; thus, residents knew who would be most vulnerable to the heat and who would need aid. Here, social infrastructure investment created more climate-resilient communities.
As climate-related disasters increase in frequency and fervor, we will need this kinship of communities, more and more, for support and survival. When we eventually re-emerge from this pandemic, let us not forget what we have yearned for these past weeks, and what we must re-invest in—our communities, and the social infrastructure that enables it.