The Third Place

Parts 7 and 8 of Beck’s series Alone, Suburban and Sorted concern the idea of a ‘third place,’ drawing from Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community.

The ‘third place’ is an idea I’ve valued for years. In 2004, I nominated a new coffee shop in my community for a Smart Growth award on the basis of its being a viable, dynamic third place.  The coffee shop recently celebrated its 5th year in our town. It’s the place I meet with most of my friends during the day, and where I’ve met many new acquaintances. And overheard lots of interesting conversations! My life would be much poorer without it.

In Part 7, Beck quotes Philip Slater, who says that “a community life exists when one can go daily to a given location at a given time and see many of the people one knows.”

I am glad to have that here in my town. I have it at church, at that coffee shop (and I can go there any time and usually see people I know), at the library, at pretty much any arts events in town, and just walking down the streets of the downtown area.  It’s great.

Beck speaks of the ‘problem of place’ that has arisen in American culture since WWII, with the ‘rise of the automotive suburb.’ I think there is profound insight in what Dolores Hayden says:

Americans have ‘substituted the vision of the ideal home for that of the ideal city.‘”

Yes. And this is the tension I feel in looking for a new home in a new area.  I spend a lot of time at home, so I want ‘home’ to be a good fit for me. But if I had to choose, I’d choose a better town over a better home. I’m not sure my spouse agrees.  He’s not someone who is drawn to the suburbs per se but he does love his automobiles, and he likes to work on them at home, which requires a garage and some space for tools and such. He also really values privacy and quiet, which again points to a larger lot that’s removed from a downtown area. I value privacy, too, maybe as much as I value community, maybe not quite as much.

Beck notes (per Oldenburg) those communal places that we lose when we live in secluded suburbs: pedestrian-heavy sidewalks on Main Street; Main Street hangouts (barbershops, soda fountains, diners); the front porch (the back porch with a fenced in backyard predominates in suburbs); corner stores; corner taverns and pubs; local parks.

“According to Oldenburg, the loss of these places have dramatically affected American community. Without places to mix, converse, and connect American social life has grown thin. And it’s mainly a problem of place. We’ve lost the locations where social connections are made and maintained.”

We’ve become commuters who live in two places: work and home. What we need are more ‘third places’ where we can spend informal time without spending much (or any) money, mixing with people and creating bridging relationships.

One might respond: but I don’t have time to do anything more than commute, work, commute, have dinner, spend an hour or two with the family, decompress a bit with a video or TV, and get errands done. Why, and when, would I go to a third place?

This question assumes either that social and community ties are not important, or that those relationships are adequately met at work and home.  Oldenburg says that

“in the absence of an informal public life, people’s expectations toward work and family life have escalated beyond the capacity of those institutions to meet them. Domestic and work relationships are pressed to supply all that is wanting and much that is missing in the constricted life-styles of those without community. … The problem of place in America manifests itself in a sorely deficient informal public life. The structure of shared experience beyond what is offered by family, job, and passive consumerism is small and dwindling. The essential group experience is being replaced by the exaggerated self-consciousness of individuals.”

He argues that for life to be fulfilling, we need a tripod of experience: domestic; gainful and productive; “and inclusively sociable, offering both the basis of community and the celebration of it.” Many of us experience only a bipod.

A news article in the 22 March Washington Post“In Va. , Vision of Suburbia at a Crossroads” — looks at a plan in Virginia to do away with  suburban cul-de-sacs, partly from an accessibility and safety standpoint (they’re dead-ends for emergency equipment; heavy traffic clogs the feeder roads each day during commuting hours) and partly from a money-saving standpoint (less road maintenance and less need to widen over-burdened feeder roads).

It’s interesting that a vision of a more fulfilling life isn’t mentioned. And autos are still seen as the center of life. No one suggests series of  pedestrian paths to connect people with the stores, schools, parks, etc., rather than taking the car.

When I was a kid, one of our houses was on a cul-de-sac. I shudder to think how long it would have taken me to walk to the little shopping plaza I frequented regularly– with it’s ‘third place’ drugstore and soda fountain —  if I had had to walk only along the roads. We all (all of us kids and teens) just cut a path through other people’s yards to connect to the roads behind our cul-de-sac, cutting at least two miles off  the walk/drive.

Of course, there is much opposition to banning cul-de-sacs, because they have fewer traffic accidents than through roads.  And, homeowners says they choose them specifically because “they offer … a sense of community.”

Andrés Duany, an architect and  ‘new urbanism’ proponent, says that

creating developments “designed to limit cut-through traffic, has made homeowners more afraid of outsiders coming through their development, because the few roads that do connect are often … ‘traffic sewers’ filled with speeding commuters. … ‘The cul-de-sac compensates for roads that are so over-designed that people speed on them,’ Duany said. ‘So instead of dealing with the heart of the problem, they created a Band-Aid, a cul-de-sac.’

Part 8 of the series gives more detail about third places:

  • Neutral territory – no one is host, no one is guest.
  • Inclusive; no membership, no status
  • Conversation is essential, though there may be other activities
  • It’s accessible and accommodating, in place and time.
  • There is a core group of regulars.
  • It’s come-as-you-are.
  • The mood is playful.
  • It’s a home-away-from-home.

For those keeping score, worship generally doesn’t fulfill many of these criteria. Even my looser church is not inclusive (there are members, though they are of a diverse array of statuses, and there are non-members), and conversation is definitely not part of the main show.  It also feels sort of (not completely) hosted, by the minister, musicians and worship team. And it doesn’t feel like a home away from home. Not like the coffee shop does. I think for me, conversation and ‘equal’ interaction is the biggie.

More on Third Places:

Wikipedia entry

Oldenburg’s Project for Public Spaces

Cool Town Studios

Seattle Times article (Oct. 2004):  Conversation starters: “Third places” provide havens for diverse discussion


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