This is Part 2 of “The Third Place” series. You can read Part 1 here.

As a refresher, “The third place” is a concept which identifies places that are not home (1st place) or work (2nd place).

Third places can be churches, coffee shops, gyms, hair salons, post offices, main streets, bars, beer gardens, bookstores, parks, and community centers—

In other words, third places are a community’s living room 🛋️

I’m excited about third spaces because they bolster the mental health and well-being of individuals and communities. Research has shown that they are critical to social connection.

Given 75% of the population will be living in cities by 2050, there is a critical need to revisit third places as a possible contribution to easing increasing levels of anxiety and loneliness.

However, in America, studies suggests that we’ve lost more than half of the casual gathering places that existed at midcentury.

🤔 Naturally, I had just one question: how in the world did this happen?

My search led me to a man named Ebenezer Howard.

Howard was an English parliament man at the height of industrial expansion and population growth in 1850s London. Noise, traffic jams, slums, air pollution, and sanitation and health problems were all commonplace.

In the face of harrowing living circumstances, Howard sought social reform and mingled with free thinkers and anarchists, whose revolutionary ideas greatly influenced him. Among them were Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson - leading thinkers in the Transcendentalist Movement.

They advocated for the inherent goodness of people and nature and believed that while society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent.

Taking this philosophy to heart, Howard penned To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform.  The book advocated for “Garden Cities” where people lived harmoniously with nature - away from the city, and on their own plot of land.

A Garden City combined the best of town and country in order to provide the working class an alternative to working on farms or in ‘crowded, unhealthy cities.

Structurally, garden cities were self-contained communities surrounded by "greenbelts", containing proportionate areas of residences, industry, and agriculture.

Garden cities would be self-sufficient, though once one reached max capacity, another garden city would be developed nearby.

Howard envisaged a cluster of several garden cities as satellites of a central city of 58,000 people, linked by road and rail.

This movement caught steam and travelled across seas to eventually influence the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  In 1932 he created a utopian “anti-city” called the Broadacre City which encapsulated many philosophies from the Garden City Movement.

Though he died before Broadacre City could be realized, his city influenced many subsequent American architects and urban planners..

One such person was William Levitt.  

In 1946, Levitt returned to the US from World War II and had the idea to create the first ”Garden City” in America. He had tried to build similar communities in the past but failed. Now, he was reinvigorated by the Garden Cities he saw in Europe and Wright’s Broadacre City efforts.

He established Levitt & Son’s and the company soon became “the General Motors of the housing industry”. At its peak, a house was built every 16 minutes. Using efficient construction technology and GM-esque production line practices, homes became wildly affordable (the first homes sold for $7,990, about $80,000 today).

In 1952, a “Levittown” city was built in New Jersey.

It was the 1st American suburb.

Many macro trends supported the further proliferation of suburbs.

World War II marked the historical juncture after which informal public life began to decline in the United States. People retreated into their homes on a scale not seen before. This advent of key technology advances and government incentives helped:

  • Paired with the growing use of the motor car, The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 led to the creation of 41,000 miles of highways, making it easier for people to live farther from work.
  • The 1948 Housing Bill gave billions of dollars of credit to returning war veterans possible to transition to home ownership.
  • Radio, telephone, and TV all became ubiquitous.
  • In a period of relative prosperity, individualism and consumer culture skyrocketed.

Catalyzed by the tides of shifting culture, cities built more and more private suburbs.

Communities were increasingly replaced by separate, quieter, and often homogenous neighborhoods. Mixed-use spaces were increasingly zoned away in favor of strictly commercial or residential uses.

The upshot of all this was an increase in personal space at the expense of daily conversations and serendipitous interactions with people from varying backgrounds. Architected and zoned away from one other, a social price was paid.

By 2010, more than half of the U.S. population lived in suburbs.

White Jews fled to the suburbs. Here's why that matters today.

Where do we go from here?

And that is very brief primer on the history of the American suburb, its ploy devised a century before its enactment. Its propagation fueled by a line of opinionated urban architects throughout the arteries of history. Its ramifications poignant to this day.

Just as humans create tools that ultimately shape them. Prior cultures influence built environments that ultimately impact our behaviors today.

Nonetheless, do not feel disheartened. History is a pendulum oscillating between utopia and hell. As we will see in the next issue, a new world of community living rooms, both built and virtual, are reinvigorating civic life.

See you in Part 3.