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Good things come in threes: The importance of reclaiming third places in our cities

Aside from home and work, where we spend time in our city says a lot about us.

People congregate in a public park for an outdoor event.

Published on June 11, 2018

What is the concept of a third place? Why is it important in helping cities flourish? These questions are ones we often consider when we begin a new project in public spaces.

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg coined the term “third places” in 1991, and describes them as “public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact.” For most people, third places are the most important social space after home or work.

While your home (first place) is private to you and those closest to you, and your work (second place) is a more formal social experience, third places are comfortable, community spaces for people to gather in a neutral environment. Third places are essential in strengthening community bonds by connecting people in urban spaces that are becoming increasingly isolated.

People lounging in Stanley Park, Vancouver.

Third places are so integral to a person’s social experience that even large corporations and chain restaurants incorporate the idea into their external design. In order to sell their products and an entire shopping experience, they designed their spaces to project the idea of being a third place with elements like comfy seating and free WiFi.

But in recent years, community members are looking to take ownership over places that are accessible to all. If someone doesn’t feel welcome in a space then it can’t be considered a third place. No matter how you look or what your socio-economic status is, third places must be safe for all to enjoy and mingle in the spirit of community.

People sitting in an urban coffee shop. Jacek Dylag via Unsplash.

While traditional third places were once places you paid to enjoy, such as a fast food restaurant, café or barbershop, that idea is changing. People are reclaiming public spaces in their cities as areas for social gathering, like parks, libraries and neighbourhood hubs.

But how can we reclaim public spaces that are traditionally underused? It sounds simple, but often it’s just by being there. Whether it is revitalizing an under-utilized space such as Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, offering free programming to the public like Neighbourhood Nature Play in Kitchener, or even through civic engagement initiatives like 100In1Day, people are spending more time in their third place of choice.

Two young women sitting on a bench eating popsicles at Evergreen Brick Works. Len Dobrucki.

Reclaiming a public space as your third place is essential in creating flourishing cities for people to live, work and play all at once. The connection between people and their community starts with third places.