Libraries, Parks and Pubs

What is Social Architecture and Why is It Important for Human Flourishing?

The Great Chicago Heat Wave

(From Eric Klinenberg's book, Palaces for the People)

On July 12, 1995, a tropical air mass with searing heat and high humidity settled over Chicago, making it feel like Jakarta, or Kuala Lumpur. On July 13, the temperature hit 106 degrees and the heat index, which measures how a typical person experiences the weather, reached 126. Local newspapers and television stations announced the heat wave could be dangerous, but they didn't recognize its severity. Along with basic health warnings and meteorological reports, they also ran humorous stories about how to "ward off wardrobe wilt and makeup meltdown" and shop for air conditioners. "This is the kind of weather we pray for," said a spokesperson for one regional supplier. The Chicago Tribune advised readers to "slow down" and "think cool thoughts." Chicago broke its record for energy consumption that day, and the surge in demand overwhelmed the electrical grid, causing outages in more than two hundred thousand homes, some lasting for days. Water pumps failed, leaving units on high floors dry. Across the city, buildings baked like ovens, roads and railways buckled, thousands of cars and buses overheated. Children riding school buses to camp got stuck in gridlocked traffic and had to be hosed off by public health crews to avoid heat stroke. Despite the mounting problems, Chicago's city government neglected to declare a state of emergency. The mayor, along with leaders of several key city agencies, was out of the city, vacationing in a cooler spot. But millions of residents were stuck in the heat.

Things quickly got worse.......

Like all cities, Chicago is a heat island, with paved roads and metallic buildings that attract the sun's warmth and heavy pollution that traps it. While the verdant suburbs surrounding Chicago cooled down at night, urban neighborhoods continued to broil. So many people called 911 that paramedics had to put some of them on hold. Thousands rushed to emergency rooms with heat-related illnesses, and nearly half of the city's hospitals refused to admit new patients because they had no more space. A line of trucks formed outside the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, waiting to unload dead bodies. There were 222 bays at the morgue, all of them filled. The owner of a meatpacking company offered to bring a forty-eight-foot-long refrigerated truck. When it was fully loaded, he brought another, and another, until nine trucks holding hundreds of bodies were jammed into the parking lot. "I've never seen anything like this in my life," said the medical examiner. "We're overwhelmed."

During the week between July 14 and July 20, 739 people in excess of the norm died in Chicago, roughly seven times the toll from Superstorm Sandy and more than twice as many as in the Great Chicago Fire. Before all the bodies had been buried, scientists began to look for patterns behind the deaths. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent a team of researchers from Atlanta and recruited dozens more in Chicago to investigate. Interviewers visited the homes of more than 700 people, creating "matched pairs" of victims and surviving neighbors and compiling demographic information that they used for comparison. Some of the results were unsurprising. Having a working air conditioner reduced the risk of death by 80 percent. Social isolation increased the risk. Living alone was particularly dangerous, because people often fail to recognize the symptoms and the severity of heat-related illnesses. A close connection to another person, even to a pet, made people far more likely to survive.

But fascinating patterns did emerge. Women fared far better than men, because they have stronger ties to friends and family. Despite high levels of poverty, Latinos had an easier time than other ethnic groups in Chicago, simply because in Chicago they tend to live in crowded apartments and densely packed neighborhoods, places where dying alone is nearly impossible.

For the most part, heat wave mortality was strongly correlated with segregation and inequality: eight of the ten community areas with the highest death rates were virtually all African American, with pockets of concentrated poverty and violent crime. These were places where old or sick people were at risk of hunkering down at home and dying alone during the heat wave. At the same time, three of the ten neighborhoods with the lowest heat wave death rates were also poor, violent, and predominantly Latino. On paper, these neighborhoods looked like they should have fared badly during the heat wave. In fact, they were more resilient than Chicago's most afluent areas. Why?

The answer is something called social infrastructure.

Social Infrastructure and Why It's Important

What is social infrastructure, and why is it important for human flourishing? Social infrstructure is important because it helps support and encourage a sense of community, it nourishes what sociologists call "social capital." Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam defines social capital as the “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” And as Putnam points out, social capital is important because:

For a variety of reasons, life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital. In the first place, networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved.

In short, social capital is necessary to sustain a vibrant, healthy community-a sense of civic cohesion. And as numerous studies have shown over the years, there is a direct link between healthy relational community and human flourising.

As Klineneberg puts it:

When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. Social infrastructure is crucially important, because local face-to-face interactions-at the school, the playground, the diner, -are the building blocks of all public life. People forge bonds in places that have healthy social infrastructure-not because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships inevitably grow.

So what if any relevance does this have for the Church?

Big Bland Boxes and Asphalt Oceans

(From my book, Building the Benedict Option)

One of the challenges pointed out earlier is that, because of modern urban planning, in many communities there remain very few actual city-centers. Many of our cities and towns lack the architectural hierarchy that used both to reflect and reinforce a sense of social order and cohesion. Historically, the importance of institutions to the flourishing of a community was reflected both in their location (at the city-center) and their design. Banks were built in such a way as to express solidity and strength, courts were built to reflect a grandeur and connection to the past, and churches were built to draw the gaze upwards and remind citizens that they lived under the canopy of heaven. Today, in many communities, this has been replaced by a landscape of undifferentiated, anodyne suburbs. Lacking any real center they merely reinforce the isolation of modern society and foster the notion that the autonomous self and its desires are the center of life.

When your average Evangelical church sets out to construct a church building it typically looks for land in a suburb. It then constructs a large, warehouse like structure with any left over land generally being reserved for the parking lot. The result is a bland building that stands vacant most of the week in a sea of asphalt, and that does nothing to counteract the overall isolation and atomization of the surrounding suburban neighborhood.

But what if in suburbs that lack a city-center, churches began to invest in creating social infrastructure like public playgrounds, baskteball courts, tennic courts, dog parks, coffee shops or co-working sites? By doing so, they might then become a hub around which suburbs could begin rebuilding a sense of shared community. In doing so, churches might help repair our social fabric while ensuring the Church a central role in addressing our current ills.

But how does a church know what social infrastructure to build: what will most benefit their surrounding community? By holding a "charrette."

Building Community Consensus

What is a charrette? A charrette is a technique used by developers and urban planners to elicit input and involvement on the part of the broader community regarding a proposed development. Think of it as a focus group centered around how best to use the built environment. In short, it’s an opportunity for you to meet with the residents of the surrounding neighborhood, share your general vision with them, and elicit their help in refining it to meet the specific needs of the neighborhood.

It’s also one of the most important ways you as a congregation can help assuage the fears of residents concerned about your church's new construction coming in and adversely affecting the character of their neighborhood. Remember, how you build may be just as important as what you build in helping to strengthen social cohesion and capital in your community. It’s also an integral part of our calling as the people of God to reflect His character and be peacemakers.

Besides holding a charrette, another way to determine what type of social infrastructure to invest in is to analyze your community's demographic data. The good news is that such information is readily available from a variety of sources: U.S. Census data can be accessed online, many counties and municipalities have such data on their homepage, and there are many companies that, for a modest fee, will produce a demographic study for you. Then, depending on the particular demographic makeup of your neighborhood you can decide what social infrastructure to build.

So for instance, the range of infrastructure a church might contemplate building could include:

· A playground to target families with small children

· One or more tennis courts to target older individuals

· A basketball court to appeal to youth and young adults

· A dog park to appeal to the 48million households that own a dog

Of course, one thing to consider when choosing what amenities to provide is the degree of upkeep they will require. So for instance, a basketball court might be a better choice over a pool that requires regular upkeep and staff.


What experience, if any, has your church had with building social infrastructure?

What type of social infrastructure do you think would serve your community best, and why?

Do you know of any churches that have done a particularly good job following such an approach?