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Making it to Third Place

June 24, 2008

Ray Oldenburg coined the term “Third Places” in 1989 to distinguish between one’s home (first places) and work (second places).  Third places are those public locales that make you feel safe, comfortable and happy.  Where you are likely to bump into someone you know.  These are the coffee shops, street corners and park benches where people of a certain stage of life tend to gravitate, therefore increasing the chances of chance encounters.

Unfortunately, as our cities suburbanized and our movements became encased in personal automobiles, the number of third places in our lives has diminished.  The fear of the uncontrollable spaces outside our private property has taken away the apparent randomness of kids meeting other kids as they prowl the empty spaces the working class leave behind at night.  Uncertain exchanges and tentative acts of bravado with the kids two-streets over have been replaced by play dates and organized entertainment.  Surprising conversations at the corner pub are losing ground to packed coffee houses silently listening to headphones and typing on laptops.  Walkabouts to the local shops are a quaint pastime, whereas one-stop-shopping big-box-store efficiency is an everyday reality.

Fortunately, the third place tides appear to be turning.  Urban planners and architects are rediscovering the beauty of the organic, and are starting to plan for random encounters rather than predictable arrival times.  Retailers are realizing that customers (aka people) actually like human interaction, and are downsizing their big box mentality to a more human scale.  Facebook, Second Life and other virtual communities are even creating new types of third places (fourth places?) where geography, ethnicity, class, education, and all the other usual barriers to expanding one’s social networks are broken down to allow for a greater diversity of encounters in the comfort of your own computer screen.

The fear is still there – enhanced by the recent terrorism hoopla – but the desire to reach out and interact with somebody seems to be prevailing.  Is this a step towards a more sustainable way of living?  I don’t know, but ever since I heard the term I have been keeping my eyes open for new third places in my life.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2008 7:13 pm

    Just wanted to let you know that I mentioned your post on my Sprawlville blog in the context of the Milton Farmers’ Market. Thanks!

  2. June 30, 2008 10:20 pm

    I helped conduct a study of third places in a community in Halifax last year. We found that people’s third places change over time – they frequent different ones, depending on their interests and stage of life. The availability of third places was also on the decline – big box stores and the loss of corner stores, coffee shops and small grocery stores were factors. Even having more public transit stops increases the amount of these places in a community.

    I think that third places are central to community sustainability, especially in terms of social capital. The network of communication in a community is important to the well-being of its residents; without it, people are disconnected and uninformed. Third places allow people to care more about each other and their environment, without having to put in special efforts.

    Although some planners and architects are realizing the value of these places, it is often difficult to plan them. We’ve all seen malls that have lease signs on the storefronts, empty corner stores, vandalized bus stops. The places need to be safe and accessible, a place that’s convenient and automatic. Planners and architects can set aside places both indoors and outdoors that may fit the bill for being a third place, but there’s no guarantee that people will use them. It takes a lot of knowledge about public psychology and interpersonal interactions to figure this stuff out. The more attempts there are to make these places, though, the more likely that at least some of them will succeed.

    Great to have come across this!

  3. June 24, 2008 2:17 pm

    What a lovely idea! This is something I really notice living in a small (now not so small) town: how many times in a day I run into someone I know – on the street, at the grocery store, the farmers market, the post office. It’s probably three or four times a day, and that’s not including the merchants and store clerks I know by name.

    I’ve also noticed that the frequency of these encounters has increased dramatically since I started walking and riding my bike more often instead of hopping in the car all the time.

    That might be an excellent way to quantify exactly what’s wrong with the new developments that have been spreading like a blight around my town. ‘Third spaces’. Hmm…

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