He called it “the Third Place,” and though most haven’t heard of it, the name has remained an intriguing part of the vision many community activists have for our quality of life.
Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his book Celebrating the Third Place (2000), tried to imagine what our communities would look like without all the coffee shops, bars, stores, parks, streets, celebrations, gardens and neighbourhood stores that serve as casual intersections where citizens cross paths. His conclusion? They simply wouldn’t function as effective living spaces.
Oldenburg identified “third places” as those locations where the public meets between the “first place” (home) and the “second place” (work). They have existed in every community for centuries, though some observers worry that, with ever-expanding suburbia, third places are becoming increasingly rare.
That doesn’t really seem to be the case. As life becomes increasingly fast-paced and, for many, alienating, people are searching for new opportunities to connect with others in settings that are secure and welcoming and offer quality amenities.
While community associations and engaged citizens search out such opportunities, families, friends, and individuals are frequenting third places more regularly.
To the surprise of many, businesses and corporations are coming to understand the need for their own employees to socialize in the workplace and are creating third places within the work environment. Employees are encouraged to come together for coffee or tea and share concepts and ideas in more informal environments.
The more this change makes its way deeper into the business culture, the more the old-fashioned belief that the key to more productivity is to keep the workers at their desks is being left behind in favour of collaborative outcomes. A by-product of this adjustment has been a rise in innovation.
But it’s within civil society that the Third Place carries its greatest meaning and deepest potential. It’s been obvious from the beginning of democracy itself, as noted by American philosopher John Dewey: “The heart and final guarantee of democracy is in the free gatherings of neighbours on the street corners to discuss back and forth and converse freely with one another.”
Now that energy flows beyond the streets and into the coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, houses of faith, art galleries, music clubs — just as it always did, only now with a sense of urgency to redefine community for a new era.
In third places are people of differing backgrounds and diverse occupations, a flurry of opinions on politics and social policies, and a variety of levels of income and opportunity. The sheer scope of ideas and opinions helps citizens to understand one another better as opposed to remaining isolated in their experience.
Both important and mundane matters get discussed on an ongoing basis in third places. Discussion, though informal, is respectful instead of vengeful because participants are learning to think on their feet in a group setting and quickly discover, to their own chagrin, what happens when they belittle others as those in the room express their disapproval.
The Third Place is the true training ground for democracy, not a parliament or policy school, or even online interaction. It is through such settings that citizens develop the skills for engaging the political sector as well as interacting with media, both social and traditional. But more than anything they learn to function in the knowledge that others are watching, interacting and hopefully seeking consensus instead of merely imposing their own will and opinions.
As the American activist, feminist and poet Audre Lorde put it: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Anyone who has sought to truly live in community understands this to be so.
That famed author on civic life, Jane Jacobs, would add, “People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”
If we are to transform our communities and neighbourhoods for a more collaborative future, it will ultimately be accomplished by a more enlightened and engaged citizenry that keeps itself open and transformative, and the political order along with it.
As we move into heightened political battles in both the local and provincial arenas this year, it is imperative that these third places we all frequent become alive with ideas, understanding and, above all, collective action.
The post can be viewed in its original London Free Press format here.