Disappearing Social Spaces and The Third Place

Before the core settings of an informal public life can be restored to the urban landscape and re-established in daily life, it will be necessary to articulate their nature and benefit. The core settings of the informal public life must be analyzed and discussed in terms comprehensible to these rational and individualistic outlooks dominant in thought. We must dissect, talk in terms of specific payoffs, and reduce special experience to common labels. We must urgently begin to defend these Great Good Places – as Professor Ray Oldenburg calls them – against the unbelieving and the antagonistic, and do so in terms which are clear to all.
Oldenburg introduced the term “the third place” to describe articulately “the core settings of informal public life”. The third place is a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.

scottish pub

He uses the symbol of the tripod to explain significance and the relative importance of its three legs. The first place is the home – the most important place of all. It is the regular and predictable environment of the growing child and the one that will have greater effect upon her or his development. It harbours individuals long before the workplace is interested in them, and well after the world of work casts them aside. This might be equitable to the setting where Maslow’s first needs, which he describes in his hierarchy of needs, are most commonly met:
In 1943 Maslow presented his ideas on how people are motivated to achieve their needs. He built the hierarchical understanding that when one need is fulfilled a person then seeks to fulfil the next one, etcetera. The common version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs includes five motivational needs levels, usually represented as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. This five stage model can be divided into basic (or deficiency) needs (for example, physiological, safety, love, and esteem) and growth needs (self-actualization).

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

The second place which Ray Oldenburg describes is the work setting, which usually reduces the individual to a single, ‘productive role’. He suggests that it fosters competition, and motivates people to rise up in their circumstances, but it also provides the means to a living, improves the material quality of life and structures endless hours of time for a majority who could not structure it on their own. Returning to my pondering on Maslow’s work, can we perceive these ‘second places’ as meeting the safety needs – i.e. protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, freedom from fear…?

Before industrialisation, Oldenburg the first and second places were one. Industrialisation separated the place of work from the place of residence, removing productive work from the home and making it remote in distance, morality and spirit, from the family life. What we now call ‘the third place’ existed long before this separation, and so our term is a concession to the sweeping effects of the Industrial Revolution and its division of life into private and public spheres.

The prominence of third places varies with cultural setting and historical era. In preliterate societies, the third place was actually foremost in importance, being the most prominent structure in the village, and usually set as the central location. In both Greek and Roman society, prevailing values dictated that the agora and the forum should be great, central institutions; that homes should be simple and unpretentious; that the architecture of cities should assert the worth of the public and civic individual over the private and domestic one. Few means to attract and invite citizens into public gatherings were overlooked. The forums, coliseums, theatres and amphitheatres were grand structures, and admission to them was free.

Social places

Third places seem to occupy the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – belongingness, affection and love – from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships. Third places have never since been as prominent. Many cultures evolved public baths on a grand scale. Victorian gin palaces were elegant, especially when contrasted to the squalor that surrounded them. The winter gardens and palm gardens built in some of our northern cities in the previous century included many large imposing structures. In modern times, however, third places survive in a much diminished form.

In his book ‘The Great Good Place’ Ray Oldenburg talks about how when we happen upon an urban landscape which is increasingly hostile to, and devoid of informal gathering places, one may encounter people rather pathetically trying to find some spot in which to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes three or four pickups are parked under the shade near a convenience store as their owners drink beers that may be purchased but not consumed inside. If the habit ever really catches on, laws will be passed to stop it.

A good example of this in the United Kingdom was the creation of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which gave powers to stop three or more people gathering in a public space and specifically defines “music” to include “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” Jon Savage, an author of books on youth culture, said “It’s about politicians making laws on the basis of judging people’s lifestyles, and that’s no way to make laws.” The Act was described as a piece of legislation which was “explicitly aimed at suppressing the activities of certain strands of alternative culture”, the main targets being squatting, direct action, football fan culture, hunt sabotage and the free party. It’s effect was to cripple a large cultural scene based around free parties and immobilised significant culturally positive activities.
In certain places in towns and cities, youths sometimes gather in groups on corners, in or near a fortunate’s cars, or around the car parks of the burger franchises. It is the best they can manage, for they aren’t allowed to loiter inside spaces. The parks and ‘recreational spaces’ have become managed and closed off to ball games, to skateboarding, to bicycling, to meeting in groups. They have had their spaces taken from them, and replaced by spaces which require finance to become involved in; if they have the finance to pay to be involved in, then they are then subject to gatekeepers and rules which impinge on the creative flow of play and socialisation. Our cultures are increasingly free, the more money an individual has to pay rental on.
Sometimes youth will develop a special attachment to a patch of woods not yet bulldozed away in the endless march of the suburbs and urban development. Swept away also is nature, as the biodiversity – the frogs, the insects, the birds and flowers which play such a key memory and influence in older generations – is lost to an increasingly sterile monoculture in the name of ‘development’. In spaces such as woods youths and people enjoy relief from the confining over familiarity, and homogeneity of their tract houses and monotonous streets.
Planners and developers have shown a great disdain for those earlier arrangements in which there was life beyond home and work. They have condemned the neighbourhood pub and disallowed a suburban version. They have failed to provide modern counterparts of once familiar gathering places. The grist-mill or grain elevator, soda fountains, malt shops, candy stores and cigar stores; places in the American context that did not reduce a human being to a mere customer, have not been replaced.

Similarly in the UK context, the creeping monoculturism of corporate development has decimated and where there used to exist a great number of open parks, public facilities, and third places, the cultural spaces have been closed down or gated, asset stripped and sold off to corporate/commercial concerns. Even community centres and churches now charge for use of their previously – and purposely designed – third places.

We are now confronted with that condition which Edmund Burke warned us against when he said that “the bonds of community are broken at great peril for they are not easily replaced”. We now see in the work of Robert Putnam and the World Bank, considerable concern for the disappearance of ‘social capital’ and community life. The spaces in which this community life are becoming fewer and fewer, and life increasingly financialised. Successful exposition demands that some statement of a problem precede a discussion of its solution.
The Ragged University project has relied on being able to tap into the generosity and support of people like George Fyvie who runs and manages the Counting House and the Peartree pub in Edinburgh.  This is an exemplar of where a kind individual and an entrepreneur in the community enables the community to run social activities where they otherwise could not. What we have found with many of the council and government spaces, is that they either charge commercial fees or have locked down the use of the facilities so significantly that any social activity becomes stiffled.

The peartree

Another example is Edinburgh Computer Repairs run by Graeme Sturrock.  He has given use of his computer shop at weekends for teaching on the computers because the computers which are in the libraries are locked down in their functionality screening out almost all abilities to do what people need to learn.  Finally, in Manchester, the support of Jonny Booth who runs The Castle Hotel enables the voluntary project of the Ragged University to function.  Without these people, making these spaces available, and providing their equipment, the Ragged University would not be able to operate.
The result is that to run community education events, which are informal and social, we have to rely on getting free spaces from people who have ownership of the spaces.  Institutional and corporate spaces come with complicated stipulations and decision hierarchies which make it impossible to work with.  In small private concerns, the situation is that you get to speak to the decision maker and you get an honest answer straight away.  Being caught in the indecision of middle-management permafrost (no decisions can get up, no decisions can get down), of institutional and corporate superstructures is fatal for small community concerns and thus very little happens.

So very much in practice, the work of Ray Oldenburg holds true in the context of running social community events.  The spaces are getting fewer and fewer, the social networks are becoming more fragmented, the lower socio-economic people are becoming more disenfranchised.  These sociological phenomena beg to be looked at, analysed and acted upon.