Making it to Third Place
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 Uncertain exchanges and tentative acts of bravado with the kids two-streets over have been replaced by play dates and organized entertainment.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.