#6: No Escape Key

+ What makes a good third place?

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Greener on the other side?

An advertisement for Levittown, Pennsylvania in the 1948 reads, “Look through these pages for the modern answer to your housing problem. See how beauty, utility and craftsmanship have been combined to give you the glamorous exteriors and the unique, new floor plans from which to choose the home you have always wanted.” (State Museum Pennsylvania)

As the coronavirus continues to grip the world, the pandemic is laying bare the inequality of American society. The gulf between people who can and cannot work from home makes issues of class and wealth all the more visible, as workers put their lives on the line to provide essential goods to people staying at home. As the New York Times writer Nichole Hannah-Jones pointed out this week, this crisis is not a “great equalizer.” Neither is the ability to log on, as the internet lets us peer into our computer windows and phones to see where people find refuge at home—or elsewhere.

As New York City undergoes a lockdown to slow the carnage, influencers with millions of followers have chosen to decamp for greener, more ‘gram-worthy pastures. At GEN, Meg Conley describes this Great Influencer Exodus.” Though these influential posters would otherwise show people “how to live, eat, and look,” their example of escaping the city cannot be followed. Still, people are selling the idea that you can escape COVID with a getaway Airbnb, but if everyone living in a crowded city flees for the country, then the virus will only spread more.

This modern escape fantasy mirrors a critique of America’s suburbanization: The myth that people can flee to a place free from the perceived problems of the city. When some of America’s first suburban homes were marketed in the 1950s, the “lure of the suburbs'' promised a more desirable countryside ideal free from the dangers, diseases, and corruption brought on by crowded urban life, as historian Kenneth Jackson described in Crabgrass Frontier (1985).

Combined with racial discrimination, segregation, and redlining, the desire of suburban developers to attract wealthy homebuyers to the suburbs gave way to anti-urban sentiments that precipitated “white flight” in the 1970s and creating the political patterns that carve suburban tax revenue out of central city budgets. Access to this new suburban life was anything but equal opportunity; it was an image marketed as an escape from everyone.

Don’t look back: “Suburbia - Straight Ahead” (Electrical Merchandising, July 1957 / State Museum Pennsylvania)

More fundamentally, the promise of suburban life—the single family home, with a two-car garage, and a lawn—runs into a physical impossibility. Suburbs draw wealth from the city, but not everyone can live close enough to the city if homes take up that maximal space. Instead of cramming in apartment buildings, people fill the roads creating traffic congestion, or increase the costs of government services and infrastructure. If everyone builds a cabin in the woods, the whole place gets chopped down. The problem isn’t density; it’s crowding, as urbanist Brent Toderian points out in the current debate about open streets and social distancing.

Even with seemingly endless space, the same problem can be outlined online. As a commercial entity, the internet was effectively born out of the suburbs—Netscape’s first headquarters in Mountain View, California, grew into the centerless city of Silicon Valley, and AOL in D.C.’s Virginia suburbs—and the early web imitated the suburban form. Now we’re seeing a repeat of suburbia’s mistakes, where influencers have an exclusive power to show millions of followers how to act in this crisis. There’s still a myth of an escape—as if, with a big enough following, you don’t have to follow the same rules.


What’s clicking

The virus changed the way we internet- New York Times

Even parks are going online during the pandemic - Next City

The tech sector is finally deliveringon its promise - Vox

The vanishing public square- New Republic

Coronavirus is forcing religious communities apart. Can technology hold them together? - BuzzFeed News

The magic of empty streets- New York Times

Target ads can be more than annoying—they can have mental health consequences - Vox

The United States needs a broadband big dig - Financial Times

Contact tracing could free Americans from its quarantine nightmare, but it raises privacy issues. - The Atlantic

This may be the time to harness the power of social media—as a family - Washington Post


"Technology has actually promoted more density, not less. I remember reading an article about how the fax machine was definitely the death of the city. But cities didn't die. Fax machines died."

-Vishaan Chakrabarti, Consequences of Incompetence,” franknews.us

Keywords: Third Place

(Credit: flickr user ercwttmn / CC by 2.0)

One of our readers writing to us last week used a term that reminded us of an important concept as we think about designing better digital spaces: The third place.

Coined by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place (1989), the “third place” refers to the social environments outside of work and home, like cafes, bookstores, bars, parks, libraries, etc. Third places as an essential part of life in a town or city because they are spaces where being a “regular” is encouraged, but not required. Oldenburg writes:

Third places remain upbeat because of the limited way in which the participants are related. Most of the regulars in a third place have a unique and special status with regard to one another. It is special in that such people have neither the blandness of strangers nor that other kind of blandness, which takes zest out of relationships between even the most favorably matched people when too much time is spent together, when too much is known, too many problems are shared, and too much is taken for granted.

Many among the regulars of a third place are like Emerson's "commended stranger" who represents humanity anew, who offers a new mirror in which to view ourselves, and who thus breathes life into our conversation. In the presence of the commended stranger, wrote Emerson, "We talk better than we are wont. We have the nimblest fancy, a richer memory, our dumb devil has taken leave for a time. For long hours, we can continue a series of sincere, graceful, rich communications, drawn from the oldest, secretest experience, so that those who sit by, of our kinsfolk, and acquaintance, shall feel a lively surprise at our unusual power.”

The takeaways from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) further popularized the idea of the third place, as it examined the decline of civic engagement in the United States. Most memorably, Putnam connects the decline in bowling league membership to falling voter participation. While Putnam laments the loss of formal organizations, like civic associations and political groups, it is these informal spaces, the third places of bars and coffee shops, where people gain social capital, the mutual support from networks and relationships. 

Putnam argues that third places are needed to sustain a democracy and help society function, and it applies just as much to what we’re cultivating in online spaces. The context collapse on the web makes it complicated, because a lot of informal online spaces don’t encode behavioral norms the same way as a bar or a library does. Civic Signals’ Eli Pariser cited this example in his recent TED Talk: LinkedIn has good behavior because it reads as a workplace, but what is Twitter like?

Eli describes Twitter as “a vast cavernous expanse where people are talking about sports, arguing about politics, yelling at each other, flirting, trying to get a job all in the same place, with no walls, divisions, and the owner gets paid more the louder the noise is. No wonder it’s a mess.” Part of the challenge is that social media doesn’t always have the kind of structure that bars or coffee shops can use to distinguish between those many possible purposes. A place like Twitter hasn’t figured out how to be a truly third space. With work and home becoming one place for so many of us, we could really use somewhere else to go.

Logging off,

Andrew Small

Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America. Share this newsletter with your friends!

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