Public Gathering Places

The Third Place 

To understand what a "public gathering place" is, it is important to know that in relative importance, the "first place" is one's home, and the "second" is one's workplace. The public gathering place is the "third place."  Author Ray Oldenburg, discusses this place where people come together in his book, The Great Good Place.  He lists the many community centers, taverns and public squares where people congregate. 


Great Good Place

There are two places that individuals spend a great deal of their time, their home and their work.  Within their home they may be negotiating a complex set of relationships and emotional needs. There are the changing needs of significant others and children.  While at work, there are the multidimentional expectations of clients, customers, vendors, colleagues, competitors and bosses.  Negotiating the relationships within those places or spheres requires a great deal of time and emotional investment.  The third place or sphere transports the individual into a citizen of the world unhindered by cultural, social and political conventions.


What makes  a Public Gathering Place comfortable?

 It may be the architectural atmosphere or that we are friendly with the staff or the owner. It may be that they are anonymous. It can be argued that in describing what makes these places "great" are things like familiarity, welcoming, comfortable or discreet.  Or they may be boisterous, uninhibited, and out there.  Such is what happens in bars and bowling alleys where individuals express unguarded opinions.  In public gathering places we are sharing conversation about work, family, co-workers, politics, We also share song, food, laughter and physical contact. 

Networks formed


The "third place" can be an open and free "publicly owned" government maintained park, square or commons to be used by all the people.  Or as Historian and Scholar Manolo Callahan argues these third spaces can be a restaurant or bar that becomes a public gathering place by the conjuncture of who, what and when people come there.  He calls them "temporary autonomous zones." At that moment, by agreeing to some basic rules of respect and confidentiality the space is made safe and those individuals are anonymous. It is here over a beer and some free and easy conversation where students representing diverse affinity groups discuss with their professsors the state of racism on their college campus or emerging events in their community or world.  

In places like the barbershop or community hall, people may see each other every few months.  It is here that friends and colleagues get together to catch up on family and deliberately discuss who may run for the school board or city council. They talk about the pot holes in the road, the new housing development going in, the state of politics and reminisce about times gone by.

Whether student, colleague or neighbor, the individuals involved willingly share their free time to make inquiries, conduct research and contact key stakeholders to address shared issues of concern.  This may evolve into a Participatory Action Research project where those living in the community build a network from diverse sectors to continuously work together.


Difficult to replicate in Social Media Cyberspace

Sociologist and professor Zeynep Tufekci discusses in her TED Talk  "Online social change: easy to organize, hard to win" and the rapid organizing accomplished through social media during the global Occupy Movement and that of Tahrir Square in Egypt.  She explores what policy or permanent changes occured.  She compares them to the slow and steady relationship building that took place during the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.  

The Covid 19 Pandemic

The impact of the global pandemic and the need to Shelter in Place and Social Distancing has disrupted two specific regular places where we gather. Many of us are not going to jobs where we would be normally working alongside other workers, interacting with clients or sitting in meetings.  We are also not participating in groups at public gathering places like libraries, bars, restaurants and concerts.  In these places we would be sitting or standing in close proximity to other individuals where risk of transmitting the Corona Virus through respiratory droplets from the nose or the mouth could occur. 

It also limited travel for work and shopping.  Many resorted to having more consumer goods shipped directly to their homes.  Other difficulties included not being able to visit family and friends for fear of catching or passing on the virus.  This resulted in growing anxiety, loneliness and depression for millions of people.

We have had to rely online social networking to replicate these interactions in some way. Scientist say that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken.What is different? In many ways online Zooming does not compare to the subtleties of human expressions, body language and closeness.  The Mehrabian and Ferris study actually consists of a predecessor formula to the 55/38/7 formula: 60/40. The 60/40 formula they created represents the comparison of importance between facial (60%) and vocal (40%) components in regards to a person's attitude. One way of increasing your accuracy is by applying the 3 C's of Nonverbal Communication: context, clusters, and congruence. (From Jeff Thompson Ph.D., Beyond Words Psychology Today)


The first priority is to take time to reassess the importance of preserving public gathering places in our communities.  At one time, in my rural community of Humboldt County, California there were 16 Grange Halls serving our population of 130,000 people.  They were located in many unincorporated areas providing a fraternal bond to farmers, but more importantly being a "third place" where small schools held graduations, families held memorials, and local candidates held debates.  Over the 35 cummative years that I have lived here at least 6 of those buildings have been sold to private individuals or non-profits.  Residents are yet to count the other fraternal halls, unique cultural centers and other gathering places that have been lost that made up the vernacular of our region.  

As the members that once managed these "public gathering places" have gotten older, the labor for maintenance and regulatory and consumer needed upgrades is long overdue and the funds to make improvements are hard to secure. New uses for these centers of the community as well as changing demographics of neighborhoods need to be part of the planning. 

In the bigger picture, The National Trust for Historic Preservation list of  Endangered Historic Places provides some insight into special places that are of risk.

The necessity of not letting the businesses that surround town squares across America become pattern restaurants and commercial enterprises losing the local families that initiated that particular character.  Often when they do, the town square becomes a kind of privatized space that is regulated to maximize consumerism over public gatherings.  Local ordinances by public officials help to give preferential treatment to locally made "enterprises."


Authentic Voices

PLANNING COMMISSIONERS JOURNAL / NUMBER 25 / WINTER 1996-97    Vanishing Third Places  Go to article here  Read Article