Great Good Place Book Cover

This is a book review that I wrote for New Urban Living Magazine. The review was originally published in the November/December 2005 issue.

Despite its title, The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg is much more than a description of local hangouts.  It’s a detailed analysis and endorsement for, what he calls, third places.  According to Oldenburg, the number of these great good places has been declining since World War II, and the effect of their loss has been harmful to our well-being.  The effects of this loss reach far beyond the individual to families, communities, and cities.

Third places, those ‘great good places’, are the “core settings of informal public life.”  Third place is the generic name given to a number of places “that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work”. A third place is that other place that doesn’t exist for most of us.  These ‘great good places’ benefit us in many ways including, but not limited to, rejuvenating the spirit, relieving stress, uniting the neighborhood, promoting equality, providing neutral ground, fostering friendships, and playing host to intellectual or political discussions.  These places also serve as escapes from work, family, or other people.  True, most of them are watering holes of some kind, but good conversation is the main activity.  Now, not just any coffee shop or pub will do.  Oldenburg adequately describes the elements that make such a place a third place.

Oldenburg presents the case that zoning and planning models of our day deter, discourage, and often do not allow a physical place for informal social gathering.  It’s this type of ‘progress’ that is putting citizens into isolated places that produce loneliness and boredom.  Also with the high level of consumption in America, we have practically substituted our third place for our home.  We purchase media centers, home entertainment centers, pools, and billiards tables.  These are features of an environment of our past that we used to share and come together to use.  The end result of substitution is a strain on family life and work.  Life is scattered about and fragmented.  Many of us are missing that outlet, the third place.  We’re on the verge of grasping that these are the “shortcomings of suburbia”.  In doing so, we have realized that our current misguided efforts to create third places via parks and pseudo-community centers have been fruitless.

After describing the third place and the elements that make one successful, Oldenburg presents his argument for them by describing the many benefits that we, our spouses, families, and peers receive.  He also takes a slice of life through several American and European models of third places.  By describing each model’s historical and modern version as well as what makes each successful or not, we are given proof to the benefits and the roles of third places.  The historical research is very informative as well as interesting, but the subheadings are helpful if the lengthy detail gets to you.  Throughout his comprehensive work, Oldenburg cites other credible sociologists, writers, planners, anthropologists, and observers throughout history.  These excerpts are very effectively intertwined and give more credibility to his argument.

Although he admits, and we know, that third places are not a remedy to all our social ills, the argument for them is very persuasive and convincing.  This work is very enlightening, thought-provoking, and interesting.  Oldenburg articulates what we often feel but don’t realize why we feel it.  The stress that comes from the scattered lives and schedules that overrun us and the lack of unorganized informal gathering places needs a remedy.  This book serves as a wake-up call, but as Oldenburg concludes, “It doesn’t have to be like this!”  I think that this book should be part of the curriculum of every urban planning graduate, though it is a significant addition to anyone’s library.

Author: Tory Parish