The Social Life of Steeplechase Park: Neighborhood Dog-Park as a "Third Place



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In the United States, there is a growing trend towards livable cities that facilitate physical, psychological, and social well-being. According to Congress of the New Urbanism, the great American suburb served by the automobile, does not fulfill all these functions. Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg points out three realms of satisfactory life as work, home and the ?great good place? as the third. The third place is one that facilitates barrier free social interaction, for example the American main-street, the English pub, French coffee house etc. Despite the ever existing need for such places, greater travel distances and the ever expanding needs of the automobile era have stripped our urban fabric of these.

The Charter of the New Urbanism points out that in the American suburbs, neighborhood parks have the potential to serve as ?third places.? The twofold purpose of this research was to examine Steeplechase dog-park using Oldenburg?s Third Place construct as a starting point; and then to operationalize third place by establishing relationships between social characteristics and physical environment.

Participant observation, casual conversations and ethnographic interviews were methods used to examine how residents use Steeplechase Park. The observation phase was used to understand on-site behavior, user interests and then establish contacts with participants for recruitment. In-depth interviews were then conducted to examine user history, relationships and attitudes toward the place. Data was coded and analyzed in NVivo 10 utilizing Oldenburg?s framework as a reference, the components of which were then examined for correlations to the physical elements.

The findings of suggest that Steeplechase Park functions as a somewhat unique third place in terms of user motivation, companion animal/social lubricant, neutrality and inclusiveness of the place. Findings also establish useful links between the physical design of the space and the social activity; prospect-refuge supported by vegetation and layout, topography, shade, edges and access being the most important aspects. Additionally, lack of maintenance was established as a major concern to sustained use.