The Necessary Refuge of Third Places

Our public meeting spaces have been disappearing. It’s time to reclaim them.

In These Times Editors

Terry Laban

third • place

noun

1. A space to enjoy outside of home and work

So, like, a bar?

If that’s your thing, sure! Or a cafe, a park, even an online forum. The idea is that humans are social, and we need communal spaces made for art and conversation and activity outside of work and family and obligations. But our third place” spaces are rapidly disappearing.

Why are third places harder and harder to come by?

The pandemic is one obvious reason. With lockdowns and quarantines, most of us experienced a dramatic shrinking of our social and physical world, which still hasn’t re-expanded. Even with commercial establishments open again, ongoing Covid risks make these spaces de facto exclusionary for many. In fact, access to third places has always varied according to race, class, gender and ability. Meeting a new friend or acquaintance for coffee is a sacred ritual for some, but private spaces tend to be off-limits unless you have a certain amount of means. And while public spaces (like parks) should offer a venue for universal recreation and leisure, in practice, many people experience criminalization or harassment while they’re there, or are unable to even get to them.

Finally, the loss of third places is tied up with bigger economic, social and political trends. Declining social and political participation overall, and a deepening distrust of institutions in general, limit the kind of spaces where people are willing to engage with each other. Suburbanization and car culture have also dramatically shifted how many third places we even have.

Anyone who grew up in the suburbs might look back in horror at how often they found themselves loitering in a Panera or just Walmart walking for lack of anywhere to go.

“The course of urban development in America is pushing the individual toward that line separating proud independence from pitiable isolation.” —Ray Oldenburg, sociologist who coined the term "third place"
How do we get our third places back?

The answer is pretty much the same as how we get anything worth having — we organize and demand it. Abundant third places are part and parcel of a larger vision for thriving, sustainable communities with robust public services. We need well-resourced public schools and libraries with services onsite, new social housing with community meeting spaces, and public parks, plazas and performance spaces in

every neighborhood.

We deserve bread and roses — and cafes, where we can enjoy them both.

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