Wanted: Third Spaces

After months bundled up in her apartment, Tam is finally feeling the spring-time pull to get out. There are seaport towns to visit, picnics to be had, and beaches to walk along (and maybe jump into later this summer).

It’s with this new energy that Tam’s been reflecting on the need for third spaces, especially after the pandemic. While there was something initially rejuvenating about breaking the traditional work routine—skipping the commute, wearing yoga pants for days on end, and embracing the stillness of one’s own space—there comes a point where novelty is needed. And despite how deeply Tam has embraced hygge, she longs for a change of scene.

According to Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist that coined the term “third space” in his book, The Great Good Place, Tam’s not alone. Long before the pandemic, people felt the need for novelty in the light of restricting their daily life to two spaces: work and home.

Unfortunately, both the first and second places have evolved into closely contained worlds within which regularity and routine are closely tied to the success of their respective functioning. Both have constant populations, and when life is all but contained within them, some people are encountered too often and others too infrequently. Association loses diversity and people come to expect too much from too few people in a duality of settings in which surprise, adventure, risk, and excitement are alien commodities.
In response, Oldenburg declared a need for a third space. But, what is that exactly?

Well, they’ve existed across time and space. The Arabian coffeehouse. The Parisian salon. The Colonial meeting house. The German beer garden. You’ve seen them on television. The local bar in Cheers, Central Perk in Friends, Monk’s Cafe (with the neon pink and blue sign: “restaurant”) in Seinfeld. And most recently, we’ve seen third spaces enmeshed with the activities of second spaces (work), in co-working hubs and nomad-friendly coffee shops.

What makes these places different? According to Oldenberg, they are:

  • Neutral. People can come and go as they please. No one is required to play host. And it feels comfortable.

  • Inclusive. By nature, it’s an inclusive place. The general public has access and there is no formal criteria for membership or exclusion.

  • Social. Conversation is encouraged. You can meet people outside of your existing network. Hand-shakes and smiles are encouraged.

  • Familiar. Third spaces are dominated by regulars. They set the vibe and culture, and welcome newcomers into the fold.

  • Welcoming. The physical space is inviting but not pretentious. It feels like a place made for people, not first impressions.

What’s your favorite “third space”? If you were to design one in your neighborhood, what would it look like? How would it feel?