Lamenting the demise of The Great Good Place

I have been blogging my way through The Great Good Place as I read it. Having finished it, I can say that Oldenburg has given a detailed overview of the third place, the reasons for the decline of such places and what the society has lost with their disappearance. Third places, by definition, are the welcoming home away from home where people in an area can stop in and get to know others in the community. They are generally situated within walking distance from a person’s home, thus providing a local place of neutral territory where different backgrounds, occupations, and classes can come together. They were, crucially, a place to hang-out, chat, and while away the time with others, not a place of organised activity.

We have heard about the idyllic-sounding Main Street USA, where the youth would hang around with their parents on the street benches or at the soda fountain in the drugstore. We have read about German beer gardens – family friendly places for a Sunday afternoon, French sidewalk cafes, where a pre-dinner aperitif could be taken with friends, the local pub, where all manner of chatter and banter goes on, and the various guises of the American Tavern, ‘where everybody knows your name’.

This book is centred on America and above all, Oldenburg laments the fact that these places are dying out in the USA (he was first writing in 1989 and the book received a revision in the late 1990s) due to planning laws and the desire for single family dwellings as epitomised in the American suburb. This has given rise to the two-placed life, with little outside of home and work, and the networked community.

Yet just because they don’t exist any more doesn’t mean that third places aren’t needed. Environmental psychologist Roger Barker believes that people act in line with the places that they are in. “If the person is in church, he ‘acts church.’ If he’s in a post office, he ‘acts post office.'” Oldenburg adds:

Experiences occur in places conducive to them, or they do not occur at all. When certain kinds of places disappear, certain experiences also disappear. So also the breadth of experience may be sharply curtailed by an inadequate habitat.

And it is this type of experience that adds to greatly to human happiness and to creating cohesive communities. He adds:

I recently asked a group if Americans living in the suburbs had the freedom of put on their sweaters in the early evening and visit their friends at the neighbourhood tavern. A resounding yes was given by the group. I asked if the younger children could go with coins in hand to the corner store and pic out some gum or candy or a comic book. Another resounding yes… I’d hoped someone would realise that non of these people can go to a place that isn’t there or have an experience that is no longer possible.

It is clear that Oldenburg believes that the loss of such places is to the detriment of society.

This isn’t a book that tells you how to start a third place, but one that outlines the possibilities that were out there, mostly in the past, and the breadth of living that they added to the individual and to the society. Put it this way: we know what is missing, how are we going to plug that gap?

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