The Great Good Place: A Digest

The ‘third places’ of a culture are those happy gathering places that a community may contain, those ‘homes away from home’ where unrelated people relate are those places which Prof Ray Oldenburg examines in his book ‘The Great Good Place’. What are the importance of these spaces in our landscape ?  How are they vital for our society and social functioning ?  Why are they so apparently pivotal in our lives and should we be worried about their increasing rarity ?

The Counting House
The Counting House in Edinburgh


Children are instinctively attuned to the climate of human relations around social spaces and experience an inner joy and serenity which is evident to the onlooker.  We often see and identify in children feeling of unsullied appreciation and honesty in responding to a sense that all is well when the adults in their lives relax and laugh in one another’s company.


When the citizens of a community find places to spend pleasurable hours with one another for no specific or obvious purpose; there is purpose to such association.  The most important of the purposes or functions serve by informal public gathering places cannot be supplied by any other agencies in the society.


All great cultures have had a vital informal public life, and, they evolved their own popular versions of those places that played host to it.  To comprehend the importance of the informal public life of our society is to become concerned for its future.  Currently and for some time now, the course of urban growth and development has been hostile to an informal public life; we are failing to provide either suitable or sufficient gathering places necessary for it.


The importance of informal meeting places is not deeply ingrained in our young culture, nor is the citizen suitably fortified for a rational argument in their behalf.  In a world increasingly rationalized and managed, there must be an effective vocabulary and set of rationales to promote anything that is to survive.


“I have declined the pose and language of scientific reporting and mean to promote the Great Good Places of society as much as analyse them.  Like an attorney-at-law, I am defending a most worthy client who may be facing oblivion and doing so in a language the jury can understand”


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In identifying the essential characteristics of informal public gathering places and their effect upon the individual and society.  It is a human tendency to want to discard or discredit, or simply ‘forget’ uncomfortable facts.  They are, however, friends in disguise.  They are clues to deeper understanding of the problem that confronts an investigator, but it takes time to fit the stubborn pieces into the puzzle.


“By current standards of scholarly production, I spent too much time on this project, such was the nature of my subject, however, that the extra time turned out to be my best methodological technique”


Oldenburg directs the reader to Phillipe Arietes’ paper “The Family and the City” in Daedalus, spring issue of 1977 as an early example of writing which captured his imagination.  The bulk of scientific writing in the area of informal public gathering places consists of ethnographic descriptions that await integration into more abstract and analystical efforts addressing the place and function of these centres of the informal public life of the society.


Sociologists may ask themselves why so little has been done in this area since Georg Simmel’s brief essay on sociology over half a century ago.  The important thing is that this research be conducted, if only to help our nation re-institute the kind of human association essential to all democracies.


It has been suggested that Ray Oldenburg is specific to the United States, but here I offer the suggestion that the march of time and economic forces are such that the corporate power structures which most firmly took root in the US have come to dominate world culture – most closely that of the United Kingdom and automobile producing, highly industrialised nations.


The post second world war economic forces have come to write their tale on global life after the deregulation of offshore business and the massive unregulated expansion of the ‘multi-national’ groups that has come to effect every choice-matter of the ‘average citizen’.  The industrial forces of the United States and the United Kingdom are much more similar now in cultural terms than once was. I claim that Oldenburg’s work is on the ascension in terms of relevance in the United Kingdom.


Great civilisations, like great cities, share a common feature.  Evolving within them and crucial to their growth and refinement are distinctive informal public gathering places.  These become as much a part of the urban landscape as of the citizens daily life and, invariably, they come to dominate the image of the city.


Thus its profusion of cafes seems ‘to be’ Paris; just as the forum dominates the mental picture of classic Rome.  The pubs of London, the piazzas of Florence, the eternal coffeehouses of Vienna’s Ringstrasse; the grocery store-become-pub where the Irish are so famous for their entertaining; the bier garten that is father to more formal German organizations, and the Japanese teahouse whose ceremonies are the model for an entire way of life.  All represent fundamental institutions of mediation between the individual and the larger society.


In cities, the Great Good Places make the stranger feel at home; they welcome the stranger. Without them, event the native does not feel ‘at home’.  Where urban growth proceeds with no indigenous version of a public gathering place proliferated along the way and integral in the lives of the people, the promise of the city fails.


Without such places, the urban area fails to nourish the kinds of relationships and the diversity of human contact that are the essence of the city.  Deprived of these settings, people remain lonely within their crowds.  The only predictable social consequences of technological advancement is that they will grow ever more apart from one another.


Increasingly, citizens are encouraged to find their relaxation, entertainment, companionship, even safety, almost entirely within the privacy of homes that have become more a retreat from society rather than a connection with it.


In their kind and number, there has been a marked decline in gathering places near enough to people’s homes to afford the easy access and familiar faces necessary to a vital informal public life.  The landscape, as it stands affords insufficient opportunity and encouragement to voluntary human contact.  Both the joys of relaxing with people and the social solidarity that results from it are disappearing for want of settings that make them possible.


The cultivation of third places is the solution to a deficient informal public life.  The numerous culturally and historically different informal public gathering places have something in common.  Ray Oldenburg discusses this in detail in his book ‘The Great Good Place’, where he focuses in on the details of the British Pub, the French Bistro, the American Tavern, and the coffeehouses of England and Vienna.


He expands upon how urban development is currently ruinous to the city, how gender inequalities permeate the informal public social life and how children may ultimately suffer the most in a world lacking the experiences and amenities associated with a safe, rich colourful and interesting informal public life.


Hope lies not with the ‘expert’ or the ‘official’ but with those who use the environment built for them and find it wanting.


“Writings indicate that the nostalgia for the small town need not be construed as directed toward the town itself: it is rather a ‘quest for community’ as Robert Nisbet puts it – a nostalgia for a compassable and integral living unit. The critical question is not whether the small town can be rehabilitated in the image of its earlier strength and growth – for clearly it cannot – but whether life will be able to evolve any other integral community to replace it.  This is what he calls ‘the problem of place’, and unless it is somehow resolved, life will become more fragmented than it is, and personality will continue to be unquiet and unfulfilled” (Paraphrasing Max Lerner, America as a Civilisation 1957)


Oldenburg suggests that no new form of integral community has been found; the small town has got to greet its replacements.  There are many social hypotheses on community and it’s meaningful forms, and many debates on whether the virtual constitutes something substantial enough to take part in the debate.  The reality is something to challenge us all.


A sense of belonging roots people in a community.  Houses alone do not a community make; and the typical subdivision provided hostile to the emergence of any structure or space utilisation beyond the uniform houses and streets that characterised it.


The suburb is “merely a base from which the individual reaches out to the scattered components of social existence”.  Though proclaimed as offering the best of both rural and urban life, the automobile suburb had the effect of fragmenting the individuals’ world.  A person works in one place, sleeps in another, shops somewhere else, finds pleasure or companionship where they can forage for it; but ends up dislocated and caring for none of these transient spaces.


Neither the homes nor the neighbourhoods are equipped to see families or individuals through the cycle of life. Each is designed for families of particular sizes, incomes and ages – even cultural mores.  There is little sense of place and even less opportunity to put down roots.


One commentator resident in America puts it “there is no contact between the various households, we rarely see the neighbours and certainly do not know any of them.  In Luxembourg, however, we would frequently stroll down to one of the local cafes in the evening, and there pass a very congenial few hours in the company of the local fireman, dentist, bank employee or whoever happened to be there at the time. There is no pleasure to be had in driving to a sleazy, dark bar where one keeps strictly to one’s self and becomes fearful if approached by some drunk”


“We are hesitant to leave our sheltered home in order to visit friends or to participate in cultural or entertainment events because every such outing involves a major investment of time and nervous strain in driving long distances”


“In Vienna we are persuaded to go out often because we are within easy walking distance of two concert halls, the opera, a number of theatres, and a variety of restaurants, cafes and shops.  Seeing old friends does not have to be a prearranged affair as in Los Angeles, and more often than not, one bumps into them on the street or in a café”.


By the 1960s, a picture had emerged of the suburban as ‘bored, isolated, and preoccupied with material things’.  The suburban housewife without a car to escape in epitomized the experience of being along in America.  This image of the automobile culture does not strike me as a healthy one; it is one of reified escape, and need to escape – one of insulation.


The adolescent houseguest is probably the best and quickest analysis of the vitality of a neighbourhood.  The visiting teenager in the suburban sprawl can often bee seen to act like an animal pacing in a cage.  He or she nervously strolls, looks unhappy and uncomfortable and by the second day is putting pressure on the parents to leave.  There is no place to which they can escape and ‘join their kind’. There is nothing for them to do on their own; there is nothing in the surroundings but the houses of strangers and nobody in the streets.


The purchase of the even larger home on the even larger lot, in the even more lifeless neighbourhood is not so much a matter of joining community as retreating from it.  Encouraged by a continuous decline in the civilities and amenities of the public or shared environment; people turn their hopes to their private acreage.


Richard Goodwind declared “there is virtually no place where neighbours can anticipate unplanned meetings – no pub or corner store or park. New generations are encouraged to shun a community life in favour of a highly privatized one and to set personal aggrandizement above public good.  The attitudes may be learned from parents but they are also learned in each generation’s experiences.


Ragged University is drawing from the work of Ray Oldenburg and the events which take place through and around the project are all held in ‘Great Good Places’ – that is, spaces which are inherently social and places which are other than institutional.

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