By Dom Nozzi, AICP
“Social condensers” — the place where citizens of a community or neighborhood meet to develop friendships, discuss issues, and interact with others — have always been an important way in which the community developed and retained cohesion and a sense of identity.
Ray Oldenburg (1989), in The Great Good Place, calls these locations “third places.” (The first being the home and the second being work.) These third places are crucial to a community for a number of reasons, according to Oldenburg. They are distinctive informal gathering places, they make the citizen feel at home, they nourish relationships and a diversity of human contact, they help create a sense of place and community, they invoke a sense of civic pride, they provide numerous opportunities for serendipity, they promote companionship, they allow people to relax and unwind after a long day at work, they are socially binding, they encourage sociability instead of isolation, they make life more colorful, and they enrich public life and democracy. Their disappearance in our culture is unhealthy for our cities because, as Oldenburg points out, they are the bedrock of community life and all the benefits that come from such interaction.
There are essential ingredients to a well-functioning third place. They must be free or quite inexpensive to enter and purchase food and drink within. They must be highly accessible to neighborhoods so that people find it easy to make the place a regular part of their routine — in other words, a lot of people should be able to comfortably walk to the place from their home. They should be a place where a number of people regularly go on a daily basis. It should be a place where the person feels welcome and comfortable, and where it is easy to enter into conversation. And a person who goes there should be able to expect to find both old and new friends each time she or he goes there.
According to Oldenburg, World War II marks the historical juncture after which informal public life began to decline in the U.S. Old neighborhoods and their cafes, taverns, and corner stores have fallen to urban renewal, freeway expansion, and planning that discounts the importance of congenial, unified and vital neighborhoods. The newer neighborhoods have developed under the single-use zoning imperative — which makes these critical, informal social gathering places illegal.
Oldenburg points out that segregation, isolation, compartmentalization and sterilization seem to be the guiding principles of urban growth and urban renewal. In the final analysis, desirable experiences occur in places conducive to them, or they do not occur at all. When certain kinds of places disappear, certain experiences also disappear.