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What Are 'Third Places'?

Sep 23, 2020 by Lena Katz

Before we explain the "what" of this post, I have to say that the path of how demand spiked for third places was circuitous indeed. Before it spiked, it actually flatlined. Now, it’s spiking, but not in an orderly pattern -- more of a jagged pulse driven by people’s desperation for human engagement and increasing irritation with "home offices" wedged into one corner of a nursery. If you were to ask many "third space" owners whether their business was enjoying a spike, they would probably wonder whether you were joking. And yet, third places are resurging…and we are all glad.

Define the Third Place

So, just what is the "third place" that’s so tied into office life these days? Basically, it’s any social environment that's not home and not work. This includes:

The term third place, and the argument that such places hold "the heart of a community’s social vitality," was first presented by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. He referenced social gathering places all the way back to the ancient Greek civilization and showed examples of how such places fostered free speech, innovation, and even revolution.

Third places and the workplace

By 2020, design and sociocultural trendcasters were in agreement that offices and homes are themselves more socially vital if a variety of third spaces are nearby -- possibly even in the same complex. Corporate office designers took pains to turn cafeterias into "cafes," to install breweries in the bottom floor of Class A office buildings, and to turn unused chunks of outdoor space into gardens or walking paths. Mixed-use developments thrived from Manhattan to Maui.

Third places and COVID-19

Then, stay-at-home lockdown orders went into place, and just like that, our beloved third places were roped off and shut down. In the vast majority of situations, they were deemed nonessential and thrown to the back of the reopen priority list.

But six months after most people went into COVID-19 quarantine, third places are enjoying a quiet but steady resurgence, buoyed by creative marketing that’s driven by equal parts love and -- let’s just say it -- the need to pay rent.

These spaces and concepts, some beloved by humans for centuries, cannot stay shuttered, but they can’t operate the way they used to either. As society’s needs change, so do the third places that serve them. And so we see shifts like these:

  • Nightclubs becoming cafes.
  • Hotel lounges turning into schools.
  • Parks turning into outdoor gyms.
  • Pedestrian streets used as outdoor dining areas.

Third place pivots are in many cases successful because people are more than ready to get out of their houses again, but no one’s ready for the risk that comes with pulling hundreds of staff back under the same roof. So, small venues, ideally with indoor-outdoor seating or some type of partitioning of spaces, have become getaways where people can work, exercise, or simply enjoy a moment of peace.

The future of third places

Will third spaces each go back to their pre-pandemic function when -- if ever -- the threat of COVID-19 is finally contained? Many of them won’t. Some may find that hybrid usages are better for their communities and customers. Some may be transformed to a completely different kind of place -- this seems likely for shopping malls and other retail spaces. But others will likely survive, as they have for thousands of years, albeit with new hygiene and social distancing protocols in place.

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