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Re-Democratizing the Third Place

February 3rd, 2008

In the 1989 book The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg mounted a best-selling advocacy of the Third Place. He argues Third Places, semi-public places where people can voluntarily gather beyond the realm of home (first) and work (second), are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the grassroots of a democracy. For example the corner coffee shop or the neighborhood pub. Oldenburg denounces the exclusion of such spaces from the gated cul de sacs, strip malls and suburban residential sprawl of post war America.

Over the past 2 decades Oldenburg’s lament has been heard. Third Spaces have re-emerged on the other side of suburban flight, but singing to a different tune. Realizing the benefits, mainstream marketing has energetically embraced the Third Place concept. New Urbanist developments have written semi-public gathering places into their manifesto for city renewal. These New Third Spaces masked by brandscaping have arrived. Coffee shops masquerade as art galleries, trendy retail stores pose as museums and markets have morphed from mandatory stopping points into social rendezvous points. Additionally corporations such as Starbucks and Whole Foods have openly adopted the “Third Space” as a part of their brand. Largely concerned with extracting dollars, New Third Spaces are intentionally designed so you will feel comfortable for a short time, but soon you’re compelled to buy or consume something. New Third Places, under the corporate eye, successfully achieve the ambiance of a genuine Third Place, but don’t assume the responsibility of building community or enabling relationships.

Truly healthy Third Spaces offer a safe haven for community to thrive. They act as a catalyst for new acquaintances and tend to widen ones social spectrum beyond the standard circles established by profession and class. Oldenburg states that in a healthy Third Place, a newcomer feels at home, and is often engaged in easy dialogue with others. True Third Places offer an informal, comfortable, non-assuming and democratic mixing of ages and classes to form the heart of healthy communities.

Piazza Campo dei Fiori, one of Rome’s many Third Spaces.

My formative years were spent deep in the circa 1980′s suburbs absent of place-based community. Since then I have felt thirst for community around place that just didn’t exist. Now, one of the things I enjoy about living in an urban environment is the intimacy and variety of semi-public spaces, but I still feel a general lack of place-based community. For a portion of graduate school I lived in Rome. One wonderful aspect about this city is the plethora of public piazzas. Residents here seem to have an innate understanding of public space and the importance of community around it. I spent countless nights in the piazzas hanging out, talking with strangers, making new friends, etc. Never was there pressure to consume or buy anything, never was I bothered for loitering. Unfortunately many US cities are not designed with great egalitarian social spaces. As a result the importance on place and community together is fundamentally different, and somewhat dysfunctional. So..

Can we use technological innovation to create, reclaim, and re-democratize Third Spaces?

Is it possible to create an egalitarian layer upon which Third Space community can thrive?

Is it possible for this layer to stand side-by-side and/or in opposition to the structured corporate interior?

We believe so.


Posted by Brady Becker at 12:47 AM in Culture, Research

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  • 455 weeks ago

Yes,I do believe you can. Brightkite is social illustration of what a network can do for the place in which one goes to for a sense of community. people unite and thrive off a society which has community spaces (The 3rd Place) Brightkite holds a great value to social networking among todays generation. ahhhh that is why Starbucks is so popular, it is one of the ultimate 3rd place environments. Done in thick stucco plaster strip malls. corner after corner the same recipe repeated. I don't know about you? but I'm certainly up for a new innovative way to find a new and improved 3rd place. Hello Brightkite.... take me to a new bright height.



Brightkite: Uniendo La Generación Movíl en Lugares Semi-Públicos...

Trackback from El Oso

Tengo tres invitaciones abiertas a Brightkite para los que dejan los primeros tres comentarios en este post. (Pero tienen que vivir en Buenos Aires.)Hace años los futuristas nos avisaban que iba a llegar el día en que estamos caminando p...

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