The Third Place.

25 Jan

The Third Place is the most important part of our society and relationship with each other. Unfortunately it has become an endangered species, if not extinct. What is the third place? The first place is the home, the second place is work or school, and the third place is where you go to connect with your community in a social and supportive way. Many things have contributed to the demise of the third place and many things will contribute to its rebirth: the physical environment is one of these things.

Ray Oldenburg, who has written on the topic defines third places as “anchors of community life that facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction.” He continues by saying traditionally the third place offers food and drink, are highly accessible, and usually have a group of regulars. Think Cheers (where everybody knows your name.) Some other good ones? Barber shops, bookstores, pubs, cafes, city parks, community centers, and places of worship.

Celebrating The Third Place

A recommended read!

The first question one might ask is “why do we need it?” This is a tough question. Literature suggests that it is crucial to civic engagement and even democracy. But I think when I am part of a third place I’m a happier, more secure, relaxed, and kind person. Check out this post for a similar take:  A Mourning for the Third Place, and a Search for New Ones and Ray Oldenburg’s “Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities.

I’ve had many third places play a part in my life, but more so as a child then as an adult. As a child I LOVED my little league softball team and other city-wide sports, I attended summer camp in the NC mountains for a whoppin’ 9 years, and I was very active in church groups and girl scouts. School can be challenging for children (I had it good!), and I still found a great deal of comfort and security being part of communities that weren’t focused on my home life or my private school, where everyone was the exact same. It expanded my view of society and acceptance, and comfort around people different from myself. These third places made me a citizen of a greater community, the city, and the world. Luckily, a lot of children still benefit from these third places.

As an adult I find myself constantly searching for a third place that can give me the same security in myself and community as it did when I was a child. I do find the occasional community at the pub on Saturday morning watching Fulham football with my husband, or on Sunday afternoons cheering on my Carolina Panthers. But experiencing the stereo-typical mid-20 something crisis of faith and outgrowing even adult sports leagues, I find myself spending hours sitting in Starbucks willing it to offer the same comfort for me. It hasn’t. The third places are dwindling…

What are their threats?

  • There has been a change in how we operate as a society. Globalization has made the world a smaller place, with people jumping between cities, states, and even countries for their careers. People stay in one place for a shorter amount of time and see less of a necessity to put down roots.
  • We have become more dependent on technology and social media to build community. Facebook is not a third place. Interactions at these sites are disguised as a community, motivating us less to go out and try to build our own. As I’ve said before, people are creatures of convenience…what they find on their laptop, tablet, and smart phones is easier than finding it at third place.
  • The physical environment where people live has become single-use and unwalkable. Cities that have a connected street network allow for multiple uses to survive and prosper. They also allow people to conveniently access them by public transportation or walking. A disconnected street network full of cul-de-sacs and unwalkable feeder roads make people get in their car to access even the basic necessities. Once they get into their car (it’s the easiest option!) they can travel long distances to find the best haircut or the cheapest cup of coffee. There is less incentive to stay in their community.

Globalization and the technology revolution are wonderful evolutions in our society, which have changed the way we live and operate for the better. Unfortunately, some negative side effects have come with them. Why I am not suggesting that these two factors change, I do believe the bubble will burst one day. People will realize (I already have), that online connections are not substitutions for a community and that the patterns of communications that these sites force us to use are not natural and can sometimes be unhealthy. Many of my friends and people my age are coming to the same conclusions. People will always crave the third place, and I have faith that my generation will rediscover them.

As far as the physical environment goes, this is where we have the greatest influence to bring back the third-place and community. Planning policies that require outdoor public spaces and zoning that encourages transit-oriented design, new urbanism, and mixed uses will at least make room for the third place, while society is rediscovering it. I find myself preaching it often, but physical connectivity will directly lead to social connectivity with one another. Hopefully the desire to rediscover our neighborhoods, the power of our pocketbooks, and a growing professional devotion to social sustainability will guide us back to…where everybody know our names.

2 Responses to “The Third Place.”

  1. Jesse January 25, 2012 at 3:11 AM #

    Do you think the disappearance of “third places” has anything to do with the decline of independent businesses? Maybe chains are less dependent on community engagement to clear their bottom lines (because each individual outlet can, in the aggregate, be less profitable) so they just…don’t try as hard. There was this coffee shop that opened near my house in Philadelphia (part of a chain) that was *covered* in signage about laptop use, lingering, sharing tables, etc. They were trying to cut down on people taking up space, but not continuing to spend–I get that. But it felt so inhospitable. I can’t imagine a “neighborhood place” wanting to cultivate that kind of an atmosphere.

    • Erin Chantry January 25, 2012 at 3:42 PM #

      Absolutely. Right on. The growth of chains is directly related to globalization. While I appreciate that my grande decaf sugar-free vanilla soy latte tastes the same in Charlotte as it does in Moscow, chains deprive potential third places of an identity unique to its neighborhood. They call it branding. Think Kaldi’s in St. Louis vs. Starbucks. Thanks for commenting!

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