Having been stuck in one place for more than a year, I have been thinking a lot about the concept of “third places” and their role in social wellness.
Third places, as defined by Ray Oldenburg in his 1999 book The Great Good Place (and its follow-up called Celebrating the Third Place), are neutral territory; public places where people gather, exchange ideas and have a good time. Third places, writes Oldenburg, "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work." Such places, he argues, are crucial for building community vitality, democracy and civil society. In my own less lofty terms, third places promote the types of interactions that have the potential to sprout friendships and meaningful social relationships.
According to the National Institutes of Health, there is growing evidence showing that social networks and community involvement, the building blocks of social wellness, have positive health consequences. Persons who are socially engaged with others and actively involved in their communities tend to live longer and be healthier physically and mentally.
So clearly, there’s a need to create structures to enhance social wellness. Enter third places, where people can regularly socialize in unprogrammed and informal ways. Those places might be community gardens and parks, neighborhood pubs, or for the fortunate few, country clubs. Whatever form they take, third places should serve as forums for social interaction. The most popular third places tend to be easy to get to, either close to home (your first place) or to work (your second place). The quality of propinquity encourages both spontaneity and regularity.
In recent years, Starbucks has bastardized the concept of the third place. Theoretically, a local coffee shop could be a third place. But the key to being an authentic third place is social interaction. What I see when I enter a Starbucks (flashing back to 2019) is a bunch of cappuccino-sipping cosmopolites who are basically alone together. They are all ensconced in their own little worlds, typing away at keyboards while further cutting themselves off from the world with their earbuds.
This scene is diametrically opposed to the social construct of a third space. Alone together does not cut it. A true third place encourages informal conversation and shared experiences on a frequent basis, thereby building a sense of social cohesion. After all, it is only by repetition that we build up relationships.
Our pandemic year forced our first place to become our second and third place as well, and we know how that’s been. Our homes have been converted into places of total retreat from the outside world. With second and third places largely confined to virtual realms, we have quickly discovered that the online world is no substitute for in-person interactions, particularly when it comes to building social relationships.
There’s a pent-up desire for IRL human interaction. When things get back to whatever normal is going to be, people will be seeking out third places where they can reconnect with others. That’s why, in a post-COVID world, there is a real opportunity for those in the real estate realm, whether working in retail, residential or office space, to build third places into their development or retrofit plans.
Look, after a year of being conditioned to work and shop at home, businesses are going to be struggling to convince consumers and employees to do their things away from home. Meanwhile, people are reconsidering where they live, as more jobs become virtual and the value of knowing your neighbors comes back into vogue. Knowing that demand for third places is strengthening, architects, developers and urban planners will all have to start factoring in third places that encourage social wellness. In upcoming posts, I will examine these ideas in greater depth.