Feb 29, 2012
Emily McMackin
Emily McMackin
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Third Places: Why They Matter for Communities Attracting Talent, Business

Book Culture

Downtown business and cultural districts, colleges and universities, hospitals, airports … all of these places are key assets for communities looking to attract industries and talent.

But if you really want to cut to the heart of a community and find out what makes it tick, you look for its third place — the place that serves as an informal meeting ground for friends, neighbors, colleagues or even strangers who share nothing more than a zip code.

Coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book, The Great Good Place, these “third places” can be anything from a bar or coffee shop to a grocery store or family restaurant. It’s not what or where they are that matters; it’s the atmosphere they create. A neutral yet welcoming environment where everyone is equal, where people can enjoy quiet company or lively conversation, where regulars can connect and gain a sense of community.

Third places offer an escape from “first places” (home) and “second places” (work), according to Oldenburg. In a third place, return visits are happily anticipated and, like in the ’80s sitcom “Cheers,” “everybody knows your name.” It’s a place of no obligation or invitation, but always accessible and accommodating to those who walk through its doors. Psychology Today describes third places as the perennial “happy place,” where the mood is light and friendly but never intrusive.

Two Benefits: Ownership and Initiation
Warm fuzzies aside, are third places all that important for communities looking to attract business and talent? Yes, for two key reasons. Third places have a unifying effect, bringing people together who might not normally cross paths and cultivating a shared sense of ownership among them. For newcomers and visitors, third places can also serve as “ports of entry,” helping them get acclimated or acquainted with an unfamiliar area and find their place in it.

People look for third places because they have been around for centuries. They are the taverns of Colonial America, the salons of the Antebellum age, the country stores, soda fountains, barbershops and beauty shops, bowling alleys and diners of the 20th century and modern era.

Bookstores, and even libraries, are emerging as third places in some communities today, according to a recent NewGeography.com article. Why? In a society that is becoming more physically isolated, yet more digitally connected by social media, they provide the best of both worlds: a calm, chaos-free yet stimulating setting — often with Wi-Fi access and coffee — where people can choose to either retreat and reflect or converse and connect, or maybe even do a little of both.

Popular Third Places
Third places can evolve anywhere; all they really require are patrons seeking a feeling of belonging and camaraderie. While it helps if they are conveniently located, they needn’t be fancy. In fact, many are physically plain and unpretentious — and that’s part of their appeal. A coffee shop in Howard, S.D., appropriately named “Higher Grounds,” has become a popular third place because “it seems to be filling the need people have to experience a sense of community,” writes Mark Knutson in his Reimagine Rural blog.

So, how can communities develop these third places if they don’t have them? This Fast Company article offers suggestions for creating places and spaces that encourage people to congregate and interact. Do you have a third place in your city or town? What sets it apart, and why is it vital to your community?

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