The sociologist Ray Oldenburg's investigation of place should be required reading for every service designer and especially for those interested in the development of community.
His book The Great Good Place presents the concept of a "third place" that occurs between work and home wherever people can gather, put aside their concerns and hang out simply for the pleasures of good company and lively conversation. Such places are "the core setting for informal public life" and are at the heart of a community's social vitality and the grassroots of democracy.
In the first half of the book Oldenburg laments the loss of community in suburban neighborhoods throughout America. He examines the patterns that have historically contributed to the development of social bonds within the community and the impact of their loss.
From his summary at the end of chapter two, on the character of third places, he explains:
Third places exist on neutral ground and serve to level their guests to a condition of social equality. Within these places, conversations is the primary activity and the major vehicle for the display and appreciation of human personality and individuality. Third places are taken for granted and most have a low profile. Since the formal institutions of society make stronger claims on the individual, third places are normally open in the off hours, as well as at other times. The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting from the home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends.
The second half of the book focuses on successful examples of third places, mostly from European culture such as the German beer garden, the French cafe or the English pub.
Throughout the book Oldenburg identifies the elements vital to the function of a successful third place. The type of activities that support or stifle community or the elements that characterize a good conversationalist. He references other writers frequently and offers a gold mine of related reading in the preface to the second edition.
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