People need to feel connected. Connected to others, to things, to groups, to places and to themselves. The need to belong and to feel connected is a fundamental element of human nature. The need to interact with other human beings is also a powerful behavioral driver as evidenced by the 53.5 billion minutes per month now logged by roughly 150 million American Facebook users. According to Nielsen’s recently released social media report http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/social/ Facebook, blogs and other social media websites now account for 22.5% of total internet usage with Facebook drawing more than twice as much traffic as the next three most popular websites combined. With 53.5 billion minutes per month devoted to status updates, chats, pokes and browsing the photos of your friends and “friends”, it seems reasonable to ask how good old-fashioned face-to-face friendship is holding up.
Much better than you might think says Dr. Larry Rosen, who has been studying the impact of technology on children and adolescents since 1984. According to Dr. Rosen not only does on-line empathy translate into real-world empathy, his research also indicates that Facebook use encourages and helps to facilitate face-to-face interactions between friends. Facebook has clearly become a virtual Third Place, it is easily accessible, inexpensive, comfortable, welcoming and full of friends, criteria outlined by Ray Oldenburg in his excellent and influential book The Great Good Place. While Facebook is excellent at facilitating virtual connections it does not replace our continuing need and desire for real-world interactions. And unlike the growing ease with which we can login, for many of us, meeting-up is becoming increasingly difficult.
Compare for a moment the ease with which you can access your favorite virtual Third Place and the steps involved in getting to your favorite real-world Third Place. If popping into that place, whether it is the corner coffee shop, post office, rec center, or neighborhood dog park does not involve a car, bus, or train, count your blessings. For far too many Americans the option to live in neighborhood designed to facilitate connections does not exist. Furthermore, the enforced separation of uses when coupled with low-density development regulations makes designing a Third Place into a neighborhood difficult if not altogether impossible. Unbeknowst to most of us, the Euclidean zoning system created to protect us has had the unintended consequence of thwarting a primary human need. And among the consequences of the last half-century’s influence on where and how we live are sprawl, increasing traffic congestion and sky-rocketing levels of obesity.
It is far too simple to suggest that a Third Place in every neighborhood would magically cure the modern world of all that ails it. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt, and there is that popular saying about long journeys and first steps. And it is clear from the revelation that 150 million Americans are investing 53.5 billion minutes per month connecting with their friends on-line that we are desperate to find, build and maintain personal connections. It makes sense then that builders and developers need to give people the choice to live in connected environments, real world places that make it just as easy to meet-up as it is to login.