Exploring the Idea of the Third Place

30 01 2012

“The Third Place” is a term coined by sociologist Dr. Ray Oldenburg.  It is his suggestion that people primarily spend their time at home, their 1st Place, and at work (or school for youth), their 2nd Place.  In contrast, Third Places are public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact.  It is where you go to meet with others, find a connection, or to engage in recreation.   

“They are places that allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. They host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” – Dr. Oldenburg

I had the pleasure to hear Dr. Oldenburg speak at a conference I attended several years ago.  While I could not be particularly engaged by his public speaking style, (His monotone delivery was only interrupted by the occasional left hand movement to turn the page of his notes.) I found myself inspired and on the edge of my seat with the ideology of a Third Place and its importance in a community. 

In Dr. Oldenburg’s book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day, he defines the characteristics of a Third Place and describes the value a community has in having  multiple  Third Places.  Written in 1989, Dr. Oldenburg cites how multiple Third Places are important to a vibrant community and provides community members an improved sense of belongingness, or a positive sense of place. 

It is in these Third Places where people go to enjoy “informal interaction.”  One example that I think back to is a particular diner in my home town.  It had easily existed over 30 years by the time I frequented it as a teenager.  Sitting in various places were lawyers, farmers, custodians, salespeople, teachers, retirees, and even a couple of Gen Xrs (me and my best-friend).  People ate together, “hung-out,” and socialized, not because of status but because they shared a community.  The fact that they lived together was their common denominator; in some cases they had gone to school together, volunteered at the same organization, etc…  It was in locations like this where there were people one would call “regulars,” and I observed a familiar behavior that Dr. Oldenburg would use as a descriptor of a Third Place.  People would walk-in to the diner, and scan the room for others they knew.  In most cases, they did not expect to see a particular person they knew; rather they went there because they expected to know someone.  If they did not know someone, the setting was informal enough that they could easily start a conversation with someone new.  It was equally familiar to watch people wave to others as they left, or hear a, “See you later John!” yelled out over the crowd.  Similarly, I would go to a local hardware store and right next to the door was a pot of fresh coffee.  (Not terribly great coffee, but free…)  I was greeted every time I walked in, not by the people working there, but by other adults, just standing there, drinking a cup of coffee, and talking; giving each other advice on the project they were working on.  (Or would eventually start… maybe)  Whenever there was a big storm that rolled through town, it was most assured, THAT local hardware store was a place of mobilization.  You could find people to help, people with tools and people with time; another Third Place. 

What was interesting about the lecture given by Dr. Oldenburg were the various reasons that have led to the decline of the Third Place, such as urban sprawl, individual consumerism, and an absence of an informal public life.  As a result “living becomes more expensive and the means and facilities for relaxation and leisure are not publicly shared, they become the objects of private ownership and consumption.”   

“Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community.”

To combat this shuttle is to inspire, utilize, and encourage the development of these Third Places.


Third Places are GOOD FOR YOU!  I advocate, along with Dr. Oldenburg, that Third Places should be kept free to enter, low cost to enjoy, provide areas of discussion, and and involve playful interaction.  There is a deeper connection to be found within your community and Third Places are the local settings where this is lived out.  Real community is local; everything else (like this blog and the social media we will post it on) is really just a metaphor. 








Can the Outdoors be a Third Place? 

 That is a great concept, however not one I would endorse.   For me (and I imagine this is true for you as well.) the Outdoors represents a deeper type of connection AND the Outdoors provides us much more than the means to a social interaction.  There is a different kind of energy when you place yourself into the canopies of the trees and on the slopes of a mountain, or when you are attacking waves of water in a raft, or sailing out where the wind and the water meet.  There are different goals to be fulfilled in Nature and those ends can be fulfilled in times we are there in solitude or in the company of a group.  Maybe your connection to Nature would be a great discussion to have on a future blog post, for now I would like to maybe draw attention to perhaps recognizing the value of those Third Places that assist in bringing you to the Outdoors, and other places where you are a participant in enjoying the company of those around you.   

 Third Places are the heart of a vital community where there exists an essence of home, lived out by local community members, where support and comfort are extended.  I think of local coffee shops or a bar that I might frequent, places like neighborhood parks or “Summer in the City” events as some of my Third Places.  I think of other Thrid Places that exist in our neighborhoods such as our local Community Centers (go visit Campbell Community Center for one afternoon, it is a hoping Third Place!), sport fields, skate parks, and local bookstores. 




 What are some of your Third Places?  Where are you “a regular”?  Where can this community go, scan the room, and hope to see you there?    Where are the Third Places that we can meet, dream, plan, and later re-live our next outdoor adventure?

-Written by Robert Brack

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