Loss of ‘third places’ has been a symptom of ‘America’s decline’ - here’s why cities are bringing them back


In the past year, loneliness, isolation, and a lack of connection have all been declared as causes of a major public health crisis, with the US Surgeon General being one of many to raise the alarm that Americans are more disconnected now than ever. Some believe that this crisis - an aftershock of the Covid-19 pandemic - is symptomatic of a decline in physical community spaces where quality connections can blossom.

Sociology professor Ray Oldenburg dubbed these physical community spaces as “third places” in his 1989 book, The Great Good Place, arguing that these third places are essential for society to establish a sense of community and civic engagement.

Third places are the spaces beyond home and work, where you can either engage with other people, emotionally discharge, or escape the mundanity of everyday life. These spaces notably do not exist to address basic needs like shelter and money. Whether that be coffee shops, libraries, salons, bars, gyms, churches, or restaurants, third places work best as physical spaces where people come together to socialise and interact.

In urban areas, third places are often found in both small and big businesses, as well as government-implemented areas like parks. The existence of these spaces is often contingent on the current economic climate.

“Urban vitality depends on how citizens spend their leisure hours,” Oldenburg argued in a 2014 New York Times op-ed on the impact of gentrification on the accessibility of third spaces. “Bad things happen when neighbourhoods lose their economic viability. So the question becomes, what can be done to restore it? One answer is to create great ‘people places’ where they are most needed.”

External factors like escalating rent have led a lot of community spaces to become vacant, especially those that in the past catered to the in-person workforce. Since the height of the pandemic, most of these workers have not returned to the office, instead choosing the convenience of working from home. Many of these spaces either took a hit or went out of business. This is especially the case in one of the most expensive cities in the world: San Francisco.

“Historically, many of the businesses here have been catered towards the downtown workforce, and with rising vacancies, construction costs, and inflation, it makes it difficult for retailers to take a gamble,” Louis Thibault, an Avison Young insight analyst, told The Independent. As someone who works for a commercial real estate company, he’s optimistic that this is temporary.

“The market is currently in a transitory phase,” he added. “Inflation has not only restricted the flow of capital from the average consumer but also from larger corporations. With limited capital, companies are likely timing their re-entry to the market until it becomes feasible to lease office space again. This will undoubtedly bring back more retailers to the urban areas.”

Despite the decline in commercial areas, he noted that residents have reportedly been pushing their local government to create more parks among other government-created community spaces with the Vacant to Vibrant program. The program spawned from a joint partnership between the city of San Francisco and SF New Deal, an organisation that advocates for small businesses in the local community. In empty spaces across the city, the program sponsors pop-up shops from small businesses, whether it’s with immersive art exhibitions from GCS Agency or hip bakeries like the social media famous Devil’s Teeth.

Businesses are also getting creative with how they operate in their spaces and design them. SF’s Temple nightclub doubles as a yoga studio during the day, ensuring that they get the most out of their lease, but also changing the way the local community utilises their space, encouraging people to make the community space a central part of their post-work routines by making it a place where you can exercise and cut loose. By redirecting these spaces to become multi-purpose, businesses like Temple are innovating what a third place can look like in this day and age.

Social clubs like Soho House also employ this strategy with an all-inclusive space that blends workspaces and community spaces, offering amenities and luxuries like a gym, office, and restaurant all in one location. However, these social clubs are oftentimes financially inaccessible to the average person and typically found in more gentrified neighbourhoods, but traces of these all-inclusive designs can be found in newer apartment complexes. Some of these buildings are designed to include gyms situated on the bottom floor of the building, boasting uncovered windows showing off the inviting, spacious setup and the people who use the facilities. Others may also have indoor cinema spaces where residents can host movie nights or conference rooms where meetings can be set up.

While these apartment complexes can be innovative with their inclusion of third places, their construction can also be disruptive to a community that is already thriving. Academics like Stuart Butler, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, argue that when developers look at low-income neighbourhoods as areas ripe with potential for more apartment buildings, they fail to see how those additions can alter the neighbourhood’s ecosystem. When they kick out that mom-and-pop diner or the local bar that’s been there for years in favour of a high-rise, they are taking away one of the neighbourhood’s essential third places and disrupting the community. Butler explained to The Independent: “It creates a social desert.”

He adds that our ideas of what we think a community place should look like, especially in low-income communities, might not line up with reality. “Some people host their weekly book club at McDonald’s,” Butler said, noting that in his research, communities, no matter how economically privileged, tend to find spaces to congregate. Humans will always find a way to connect, even if unconventional.

By instead investing in the already existing community and enhancing what is already there, the quality of life and the mental health of the community can be improved. Increasing access to economic and social opportunities, fitness and health, and mental health services can lead to much healthier and happier communities in urban areas, according to research.

Butler - who lives in a senior village in the Washington DC area - noted that his own community is striving to innovate the way we design communities to enable greater access to resources and enhance connection, specifically among elderly people, who are at an increased risk for loneliness and social isolation, according to the CDC.

“We’re looking at different layouts for nursing home and assisted living,” he says, noting that they are trying to find ways to increase access to third places. “And utilising space in creative ways and drawing people in from the community so that the person in the nursing home starts getting connected to the library, the, you know, the church, and so on.”

He added that his senior village and villages like his are designed to combat social isolation by making third places like libraries and recreation centers easily accessible community staples. These places then put on events like movie nights as well as group exercise classes, which encourage social interaction.

He stressed that the design of third places within communities is critical to not just the mental health of seniors, but of the entire population as a whole, noting: “Whenever people are cut off, they lose connection.”

Developers and cities all across the US have been laying the groundwork for third places to stage a comeback. Whether it’s in more densely populated areas like San Francisco, or the urban sprawl of Washington DC, the investment in third places will be crucial for the health of the collective.

By prioritising third places in cities, and thereby prioritising the social well-being of these communities in this post-pandemic landscape, we can provide more people with access to adequate social support systems and foster quality connection. If we can create more spaces that can bring people together, we can ultimately help more people combat loneliness.