Lopez: Vibrant communities need reinvestment in social infrastructure
Examples of social infrastructure include parks, libraries, churches and government buildings. Photo courtesy City of Campbell.

The process of creating policy — the work that helps shape a community — can seem opaque and frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be.

Most of us intuitively understand many of these concepts. For example, as our cities and towns debate whether to close streets to cars to allow outdoor dining, it’s sparked a realization that the way our communities are designed is not immutable — that we can collectively make different decisions.

Urban policy expert Eric Klinenberg has written powerfully about the importance of this “social infrastructure” for building and maintaining a sense of shared community and belonging. Klinenberg defines social infrastructure as “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact.”

In many of our smaller cities and towns, such as Campbell, with a strong social infrastructure, residents sometimes intuitively refer to this as a “small town feel.” It’s one of the building blocks for creating a livable community that feels welcome and inclusive to all.

Examples of social infrastructure here in the South Bay include our parks, libraries, churches, and yes, our government buildings — city halls, county offices and public spaces which belong to all of us.

In fact, it’s instructive to compare city halls. What better representation is there of the values a community holds? In some of our local cities and towns, city hall is bustling and thriving, a version of the Roman town square, with rallies, protests, and community events, with meeting rooms available to the public for groups to meet and build community.

Others are staid, monolithic buildings, rising high but welcoming no one, with few gathering spaces.

All of these choices, intentional or not, reflect the values of those communities.

By being welcoming to all, successful social infrastructure also increases representation and faith in our local government and civic institutions. Furthermore, as Klinenberg points out, “social infrastructure doesn’t just protect our democracy; it contributes to economic growth.”

We can see this every day in Campbell, which has the most pedestrian-friendly and vibrant downtown core in the entire South Bay. According to city planner and urbanist Jeff Speck, this walkability is the key determinant of a thriving community.

This makes it safe for families and children during the day and leads to a bustling nightlife. It creates foot and bike traffic which helps our downtown small businesses thrive, and is attractive for runners and those just taking a stroll, keeping our community healthy.

Recent protests and debates in the public square have brought renewed focus on the extent to which our public spaces truly are public. Each of the decisions that go into planning our communities, whether originally a conscious one or not, reveals the extent to which our social infrastructure is built for some of us, while often excluding many others.

Are our roads for cars, for bikes, for buses, for couples or families out on a walk? Are they inviting to all the members of our community, or does poor planning inhibit movement for those with accessibility concerns? Does everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, feel ownership of their community?

The future success of our cities and towns will depend on the answer to these questions — the extent to which our social infrastructure is by and for all of us.

Sergio Lopez is a writer, historian and member of the Board of Directors of the Campbell Historical Museum Foundation. 

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