Informal Public Life And The Urban Agenda

A tremendous advantage enjoyed by societies with a well developed informal public life is that, within them, poverty carries fewer burdens over that of having to live a Spartan existence.

There is less stigma and less deprivation of experience suggests Oldenburg.  There is an engaging and sustaining public life to supplement and complement home and work routines.  For those on tight budgets who live in some degree of autsterity, it compensates for the lack of things owned privately.  For the affluent, it offers much that money cannot buy.

cafe culture

Demand for all manner of electronic gadgetry to substitute vicarious watching and listing for more direct involvement is high.  Everyone old enough to drive finds it necessary to make frequent escapes from the private compound located amid hundreds of other private compounds.  To do so, each needs a car, and that car is a means of conveyance as privatized and antisocial as the neighbourhoods themselves.


Fords and Chevy’s cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and the additional expenses of maintaining, insuring and fueling them constitute major expenditures for most families.  Worse, each drives his or her own car prompting the question “what needs can suburbanites satisfy by means of an easy walk ?”

When the settings for casual socializing are nto provided in the neighbourhoods, people compensate in the workplace.  Coffee breaks are more tahn mere rest periods; they are depended upon more for sociable human contact than physical relaxation.

Once clear parameters separating work from play have become confused.  The individuals find that neither work nor play are as satisfying as they should be.  The structure of shared experience beyond that offered by family, job and passive consumerism is small and dwindling.

urban sprawl

The frontier of informal public life does not remain benign as it awaits development.  It does not become easier to tame as technology evolves, as governmental bureaus and agencies multiply, or as population grows.  It does not yield to the mere passage of time and a policy of letting the chips fall where they may as development proceeds in other realms of urban life.  In the sustained absence of a healthy and vigorous informal public life, the citizenry may quite literally forget how to create one.  A facilitating public etiquette consisting of rituals necessary to the meeting, greeting and enjoyment of strangers is not much in evidence in the United States.

It is replaced by a set of strategies designed to avoid contact with people in public, by devices intended to preserve the individuals circle of privacy against any stranger who might violate it.  Urban sophistication is deteriorating into such matters as knowing ‘who is safe on whose turf’, learning to minimize expression and bodily contact when in public, and other survival skills required in a world devoid of amenities.

Certain basic requirements of an informal public life do not change, nor does a healthy society advance beyond them.  To the extent that a thriving informal public life belongs to a society’s past, so do the best of its days, and prospects for the future should be cause for considerable concern.

Towns and cities that afford their populations an engaging public life are easy to identify.  What urban sociologists refer to as their interstitial spaces are filled with people.  The streets and boulevards are being used by people sitting, standing and walking.  Prominent public space is not reserved for the ‘well-dressed’, middle class that is welcomed at today’s shopping malls where money serves as rental for ‘space-to-exist’.

The elderly and poor, the ragged and infirm, are interspersed among those looking and doing well.  The full spectrum of local humanity is represented.  Most of the streets are as much the domain of the pedestrian as of the motorist.  The typical street can still accommodate a full sized pram and still encourages a new mother’s outing with her baby.  Places to sit are abundant; children play in the streets.

The examples set by societies that have solved the problem of place and those set by the small towns and vital neighbourhoods of our past suggest that daily life, in order to be relaxed and fulfilling, must find its balance in three realms of experience.  One is domestic, a second is gainful or productive, and the third is inclusively sociable, offering both the basis of community and the celebration of it.

Each of these realms of human experience is built upon associations and relationships appropriate to it; each has its own physically separate and distinct places; each must have its measure of autonomy from the others.

place and belonging

The third realm of experience is as distinct a place as home or office.  The informal public life only seems amorphous and scattered; in reality it is highly foucsed.  It emerges and is sustained in core settings.  Where the problem of place has been solved, a generous proliferation of core settings of informal public life is sufficient to the needs of the people.

Oldenburg cites French culture as having ‘solved the problem of place’.  The French person’s daily life sits firmly on a tripod consisting of home, place of work, and another setting were friends are engaged during the midday and evening aperitif hours, if not earlier and later.  Attempting to create a balance on a bipod of home and work is precariously deficient.

That alienation, boredom, and stress are endemic among us is not surprising.  For most of us, a third of life is either deficient or absent together, and the other two thirds cannot be successfully integrated into a whole.