Climate Change & Social Infrastructure

I have recently read two interesting descriptions of libraries.

One is from Michelle Wilson, the executive director of the Sydney Downtown Development Association (formerly the Sydney Waterfront District), who sees the proposed new central library as a “quality product” that can enhance Sydney’s “brand.” In a letter to the editor of the Cape Breton Post on Monday she writes:

From my perspective as executive director of the Sydney Downtown Development Association, a new library would be a vitally important piece of infrastructure in the revitalization of the downtown core. Moreover, it’s an essential component of product development…

Brands are more about product than marketing as they influence what people think of products and experiences offered. Icons tend to underpin brands and in the case of Sydney’s downtown core a new central library can potentially symbolize the quality products and beneficial experiences. In this role a new library will noticeably upgrade and enhance our community and keep people coming back.

Okay I lied, I read one interesting description of libraries and that wasn’t it.

But this idea of libraries as brand-enhancing products (the “Books Do Furnish a Room” notion of libraries, for all you Anthony Powell fans out there) cropped up during last Wednesday’s information session on the project, when architect Spyro Trifos (who has apparently volunteered to design the edifice for us) remarked that one of his architectural renderings showed what the library might look like from the deck of a cruise ship:

 

I must admit, it is an impressive view — much more impressive than that from the Esplanade, although the Esplanade view is, arguably, the one more CBRM residents will experience:

 

Communal life

Fortunately, just prior to reading Wilson’s letter, I’d read what the novelist Sue Halpern had to say about libraries in the New York Review of Books.

Halpern tells of her time in a “remote mountain town” which had lost its bookmobile and proposed a small tax increase to fund a library. The proposal was “soundly defeated,” the dominant sentiment seemingly expressed by a man who said that “libraries are communist.” The board somehow “scrounged up $15,000” and tasked Halpern and two retired teachers with turning the money into a lending library. Such was their success that:

By year’s end we had signed up about 1,500 patrons, and there was a book club, a preschool story hour, movie night, and a play-reading group. High school students, many of whom did not have Internet access at home, came in the afternoon to do their homework. People pressed books into the hands of strangers who did not stay strangers for long. And it occurred to me one Saturday, as I watched quilters sitting at our one table trade patterns and children clear the shelves of The Magic School Bus series, racing to check them out, that the man who had said that libraries were communist had been right. A public library is predicated on an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism. It is nonjudgmental. It stands in stark opposition to the materialism and individualism that otherwise define our culture. It is defiantly, proudly, communal.

As you might imagine, it is Halpern’s version of a library rather than Wilson’s that resonates with me. Her “lending library” in that remote mountain town could as well be a description of the McConnell Library in Sydney, the one straining to be so many things to so many people despite its inadequate and outdated facilities.

I think it’s also the view of a library the chair of the Library Board, Neeta Kumar-Britten, was invoking when she said, during last Wednesday’s information session, that while a new library could indeed be an attraction for tourists, it is, first and foremost, something we deserve as a community.

Libraries, the as the sociologist Eric Klinenberg says, are “palaces for the people.”

 

Social infrastructure

That’s actually the title of Klinenberg’s new book: Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read it. (They don’t have it at the library yet, it was only published in September 2018, but I’m quite sure they will because the person in charge of acquisitions at the McConnell is on top of these things.)

I did listen to an extended interview with Klinenberg on the design podcast 99% Invisible and I read an excerpt from his book about a virtual bowling team for seniors in a Brooklyn, New York library. The participants, who range in age from 50 to “almost 90,” play Xbox bowling against teams from other libraries. Klinenberg writes:

They are old, and some are enfeebled, probably too weak to hold an actual ball. Only one player had ever participated in an old-fashioned bowling league, the kind that requires gutters, slick shoes, and a shiny wood floor. Robert Putnam famously lamented the demise of these leagues during the late twentieth century. Their disappearance, he argued, signaled a worrisome decline in social bonds. But here a group of people who could easily be at home, cut off from friends and neighbors, is involved in something greater than deep play. They’re participating, fully and viscerally, in collective life. The mood is electric. Turn by turn, the players stand, boosted by their teammates’ applause and the librarians’ exhortations, salute the screen, and demolish their digital targets.

Klinenberg told the host of 99% Invisible, Roman Mars, that libraries are an example of something he calls “social infrastructure,” which he defines this way:

There is a set of physical places and institutions that shape our social life. And social infrastructure is just as real as the infrastructure for water, or for power or for communications but we haven’t been able to see it because we don’t have a concept for it. And, you know, what I’ve learned over the course of my work as a social scientist is that, when we live in places where we invest in social infrastructure — places like libraries or parks, schools, athletic fields — we reap all kinds of benefits. We become far more likely to interact with people around us, whether they are friends and family or neighbors who we haven’t gotten to know. And when we don’t invest in social infrastructure, if we neglect it, let it fall apart, we tend to grow more isolated.

(This immediately put me in mind of the Cape Breton Post‘s recent stories about lonely seniors.)

This isn’t about a “product” that “enhances our brand,” it’s about a space that enhances the lives of people in this community. If people who wander off a cruise ship and into the library also enjoy it, that’s fine, but we’re hardly designing a destination for them. They have lots to keep them busy. (By which I mean, they have lots of buffets to attend.)

 

Location

A second letter in the Post on Monday questioned the wisdom of locating the library next to a casino. (If Harbour Royale Develpment Ltd, the group behind the waterfront plan, is successful, it will convince the casino to move out of the building it paid to construct next to Centre 200 and into a new building on the waterfront — one it will apparently share with an expanded Holiday Inn, if the Holiday Inn agrees to expand.)

Strangely enough, this isn’t the first time the idea of putting the library near the casino has been floated — CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke pulled that rabbit out of his hat in January 2017, telling the Post the CBRM was considering building the new central library next to Centre 200. That plan seems to have died a death, as two years later, I’ve yet to hear another boo about it.

The new plan wouldn’t bring the library to the casino, though — it would bring the casino to the library. Why? Well, as Jim Wooder, HRDL’s project manager for the waterfront development, said during the information session:

If we could get the casino…located there it would drive more people down there and give them something else to do.

And here, we need to pull back for a moment and remember, Wooder is wearing two hats (a look few people can pull off). While Wednesday’s session was ostensibly about the new library, it also gave HDRL a chance to discuss its broader project, and Wooder admitted flat out they hope the library is a lure that will help them attract the casino operator, and the hotel operator and the tenants for the group’s office and residential towers.

So it’s in HDRL’s best interests to put the library next to the casino.

But is it really in the best interests of the library to be located next to the casino? Should we really be putting, as Wooder does, a trip to the library and a trip to the casino in the same category of “fun things to do on the Sydney waterfront?”

Has anyone ever written evocatively about the benefits of a casino as “social infrastructure?”

And will people actually want to live next to a casino? Is it possible one component of the HRDL’s waterfront plan could actually be detrimental to another? Do they know that one of the advantages of living next to a casino is that it can make it easier to rent your apartment — or a room in your apartment — on Airbnb?

 

Location

The problem with having private developers oversee your public library is that they never cease to think like private developers, as witnessed by Wooder’s admission that the library, to them, is the key to getting the rest of the project off the ground.

I noticed it with Trifos, too, when I asked him if the fact the structure was round would make it more resilient to wind and water. He allowed as how there might be some advantage that way, but told me they’d actually chosen the shape “for the views.” Then he remarked that the waterfront property was “a million dollar site.” (A million dollar site that nobody else wanted to develop, mind you — HRDL’s was the only bid received.)

But the strangest comment was one Trifos made to me and again during his presentation about this library, the Chicago Public Library in the city’s Chinatown, which he termed a “precedent” for our library:

 

Chicago Public Library Chinatown Branch. (Source: dezeen https://www.dezeen.com/2015/12/31/som-chicago-chinatown-branch-library-circular-aluminium-fins/)

Chicago Public Library Chinatown Branch. (Source: dezeen https://www.dezeen.com/2015/12/31/som-chicago-chinatown-branch-library-circular-aluminium-fins/)

 

Trifos said it was a beautiful building but that it was set in a “very rough, rough part of town” and the people who built it “would have been so envious” of Sydney’s waterfront site.

Right.

So, first, the Chinatown neighborhood is a big tourist destination and by all accounts (by which I mean, according to all the travel advisory internet sites I checked) one of the safest neighborhoods in Chicago.

And second, everything I said off the top about libraries as “social infrastructure” goes double in “rough” neighborhoods.

I wasn’t going to get into this but I think I have to: in his interview with Roman Mars, Eric Klinenberg said that what originally got him interested in libraries was research he assisted with into a deadly heat wave in 1995 in his hometown — which just happens to be Chicago. When they looked at the data in the aftermath of the heatwave, which killed over 700 people, Klinenberg said they noticed that while generally — and unsurprisingly — wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods fared better than poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods, there were some anomalies:

There were a bunch of neighborhoods that demographically looked like they should have fared very bad in the disaster but proved to be strikingly resilient. They were safer even than the most affluent neighborhoods on the North Side. And even more interestingly, there were these pairs of neighborhoods where the demographics were identical, like, the same proportion of old people and poor people and African American people, and they were separated by just a street…And one neighborhood would have an astronomically high death rate and the other would be one of the safest places in Chicago.

And the numbers alone couldn’t tell the story of what was going on and so, in kind of classical ethnographer style, I started traveling around and spending time in the neighborhoods and what I observed is that the places that had low death rates turned out to have a robust social infrastructure. They had sidewalks and streets that were well taken care of. They had neighborhood libraries. They had grocery stores and shops and cafes that drew people out of their homes and into public life. And what that meant, is that on a daily basis, people got to know each other pretty well. They used the social infrastructure to socialize. And so, when this crisis happened in Chicago, they knew who was likely to be sick, who should have been outside that wasn’t and that meant they knew whose door to knock on and who to help.

Libraries literally helped save people’s lives.

So the idea that the developers charged with building Chinatown’s library would have been bummed about the non-beautiful setting is really odd. Especially when you look at what they achieved:

Chicago Chinatown Public Library. (Source dezeen

Chicago Chinatown Public Library. (Source dezeen)

Who would walk into that building and think, “This is okay, but do you know what would make it better? If it were on the waterfront and I were looking at it from the rear end of a cruise ship.”

Views are fine, but even the Halifax library only really has them from the rooftop and it doesn’t make the library any less wonderful.

 

Location

And I have to raise the climate change issue again because it barely got mentioned on Wednesday.

In fact the Post was able to summarize everything Trifos said in response to concerns about rising sea levels in one sentence:

As for sea rise, he said the library is built above the forecasted coastal surge, but if there is flooding, the lower levels would only be used for parking and storage.

The front page of Wednesday’s Post is blaring at me even as I type, “Atlantic Canada on path to sea level rise.”

And I just heard landscape architect and marine ecologist Colleen Mercer Clarke tell the CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti that we have become too complacent about our “ability to monitor” sea levels.

Tremonti and the Post are talking about rising sea levels because a federally commissioned report on climate change says Canada has been warming at twice the global rate and will continue to do so.

And sea level rise is not even the half of it — inland flooding is also expected to become more severe and common as extreme weather taxes our waste water infrastructure, forest fires are expected to become more frequent due to drought conditions, fresh water will become more scarce. This is what I’ve gleaned from reports about the report, is it any wonder I’m dreading reading the actual thing?

Some argue we shouldn’t be spending money on a library when we need to do so much to improve our other infrastructure, and I take their point, but I think the library budget is such a drop in the bucket compared to what we’ll have to spend to make the municipality more generally resilient that build it or not, it would hardly make a dent in the costs. I also think “social infrastructure” will be more important than ever in the difficult days that seem to be ahead.

That said, if we are going to spend money on a library, it behooves us to make it as safe and sustainable as possible, and I’m not sure HRDL’s ideas of safe and sustainable cut it: basically, the plan is to put the “uninhabited” portion of the library on the ground floor, which would be the most vulnerable rising sea levels.

Are we really willing to take the risk that flooding could take out the bookmobile, any cars that happened to be parked there at the time, the elevator and those things that libraries keep in storage — oh, what are they called again? Starts with a “B.” Rhymes with “cooks?” Oh, that’s it — BOOKS?

Why would take that risk if we didn’t have to?

 

Who’s driving this bus?

And finally, I have to note something that jumped out at me the moment the list of speakers was announced at Wednesday’s session.

We heard from Michelle Wilson of the Downtown Development Association, a business organization.

We heard from Kathleen Yurchesyn, CEO of the Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce, a business organization.

We heard from Spyro Trifos, the architect linked to HRDL, a business.

We heard from Jim Wooder, the project manager for HRDL, a business.

We heard from Neeta Kumar-Britten, the chair of the Library Board (a teacher).

Getting the business community on board with the new library is one thing, but letting them think the primary purpose of a library is to drive economic development — i.e. their business — is ridiculous.

Sure, there can be lots of good economic news attached to a successful central library like the one in Halifax, but it’s not the primary purpose of a library and — hand to heart – I almost asked for a show of active library cards on Wednesday because I’d be willing to bet the board chair is the only one who has one.

And did you notice what entity wasn’t represented in that list?

We didn’t hear from any of our elected CBRM officials, three of whom — Councilors Steve Gillespie, Amanda McDougall and Kendra Coombes — are on the Library Board.

The impression I was left with was that although the public will be funding this project (both through government support and through a capital-raising campaign) the private sector has it very firmly in hand.

Some will contend this is as it should be — that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a government in possession of funds for a library must be in want of a private sector partner.

But some have been saying that sort of thing for 50 years now and the problem is, it’s not true.

Don’t take my word for it — look it up at the library.

 

 

 

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