My Kingdom for a Casual Environment

Most of us have experienced the subtle-but-undeniable good of hanging out in a casual environment with others. Whether at a coffeeshop, tavern, or bookstore, there is something unique about a place where informal conversation blossoms naturally. These are what sociologists call “third places”—not your home or your workplace, but a third place where people in a geographic area expect to run into their neighbors. An environment that is friendly, unhurried, and without agenda or explicit purpose.


As Ray Oldenburg described it in his seminal work on this subject (The Great Good Place), when locals have a third place to spend “pleasurable hours with one another for no specific or obvious purpose,” there really is purpose. Oldenburg argues that every great society has these “great, good places” where people can meet, deepen friendships, and be in unhurried conversation.


Oldenburg’s research revealed that having a casual environment to spend time with those you live near strengthens the ability to care for each other:


“And people are helpful in neighborhoods where casual contact has made them aware of one another’s situations. Baby cribs, bicycles, children's clothing, and the like are passed along by those who no longer need them. The man about to buy an expensive lawnmower gets some more reliable assessment of the machine from the neighbor who owns one than from the stranger who is trying to sell it to him. Neighborhood residents who know a family will cast a caring eye on its youngest members. In this scrutiny there is protection for the children and, often, a bit of help in raising them.”

Whether your casual place is a corner café, a neighborhood park, or a barbershop, Oldenburg also explains how helpful such hangout places are for meeting our own needs:


“The casual environment meets many needs without incurring the effort, and, often, the inefficiency of rational planning; it also meets needs beyond the individual's capacity to recognize them. Most individuals, particularly those cut off from community life, suffer what some psychologists call cognitive bias. The fundamental idea is that individuals, in their ignorance, think they know all their needs and how to satisfy them. This is not true. Life lived amid a variety of other people in a casual habitat supplies much of what people need without their ever being aware of it.”


It appears that there’s more than mere companionship that comes from having a local spot “where everybody knows your name.” Our relationships and our neighborhoods are strengthened by informal time spent in casual environments with the people in our community.


If you have such a place near you, are you taking full advantage of it? Your efforts at pursuing the common good of your neighborhood will likely be enriched by time spent rubbing shoulders with others in such a place. Rather than drive long distances to remote third places far away from where you live, consider spending more time in the parks, cafés, bookstores, and sidewalks where you are likely to run into neighbors.


If you don’t have such a place near you (do I see any hands, suburbanites?), perhaps you’ll need to get creative. Can a small neighborhood park become a functioning third place? Might hanging out in front of your house (and investing in an extra lawn chair or two) create a type of “great good place” where you can spend unhurried time with neighbors? Perhaps even a block party or backyard barbecue could become a sort of temporary third place.


Wherever you live, don’t underestimate the importance of unhurried time spent in casual environments with your neighbors. These places could wind up being more valuable than you ever would have guessed.


(Excerpt for this blog from The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community by Ray Oldenburg, Marlowe & Company, 1989.)

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