The third place (also known as third space) is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. In his influential book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg (1989, 1991) argues that third places are important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place.
Oldenburg calls one's "first place" the home and those that one lives with. The "second place" is the workplace — where people may actually spend most of their time. Third places, then, are "anchors" of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. All societies already have informal meeting places; what is new in modern times is the intentionality of seeking them out as vital to current societal needs. Oldenburg suggests the following hallmarks of a true "third place":
- Free or inexpensive
- Food and drink, while not essential, are important
- Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
- Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
- Welcoming and comfortable
- Both new friends and old should be found there.
Homi K. Bhabha wrote about hybridity and third space from a postcolonial perspective in The Location of Culture (1994). In an interview, Bhabha explains how his conception of third space as "differential temporal movements within the process of dialectical thinking and the supplementary or interstitial 'conditionality' that opens up alongside the transcendent tendency of dialectical contradiction" developed from Walter Benjamin's work.
Political geographer and urban planner Edward Soja also developed a theory of Thirdspace, in his 1996 book Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-And-Imagined Places. His postmodern conception draws on and is influenced by Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, and postcolonial thinkers Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, bell hooks, Edward Said, and Homi K. Bhabha. Soja's concept of Thirdspace "breaks the Firstspace-Secondspace dualism and comprises such related concepts as ‘place, location, locality, landscape, environment, home, city, region, territory and geography’ (50) that attempts to come to terms with the representational strategies of real and imagined places. He proposes a ‘trialectics of spatiality’ (57) which is a process, a dynamic force and ‘recombinational and radically open’ (50)."
Virtual Third Places and Spaces
Since Oldenburg’s writings, there are people in the computer and internet industry that have declared that third places are observed or shifting to the virtual world or virtual third places. This descriptive practice is easily adopted because of the similarities in descriptive characteristics found between the virtual and physical worlds. It is possible that there are some interesting notions in relation to the transitional sequences or observed phenomena, which have occurred in the evolutionary focus in social life.
In combination with the Industrial Revolution and as media transitioned from the public space to the more comfortable roles inside our homes there was a large shift away from public activities because they could be enjoyed within the confines of one’s home. With the advent of online technologies these virtual third places have been observed in online communities and multi-player gaming. The characteristics observed in these communities vary from their physical application but meet the context of personalization, permeability, approachability, and comfortability.
There are eight characteristics that define a Third Place, as described by Oldenburg.
Occupants of Third Places have little to no obligation to be there. They are not tied down to the area financially, politically, legally, or otherwise and are free to come and go as they please.
Third Places put no importance on an individuals status in a society. Someone's economic or social status do not matter in a Third Place, allowing for a sense of commonality among its occupants. There are no prerequisites or requirements that would prevent acceptance or participation in the Third Place.
Conversation is Main Activity
Playful and happy conversation is the main focus of activity in Third Places, although it is not required to be the only activity. The tone of conversation is usually light hearted and humorous; wit and good natured playfulness are highly valued.
Accessibility and Accommodation
Third places must be open and readily accessible to those who occupy them. They must also be accommodating, meaning they provide the wants of their inhabitants, and all occupants feel their needs have been fulfilled.
Third Places harbor a number of regulars that help give the space its tone, and help set the mood and characteristics of the area. Regulars to Third Places also attract newcomers, and are there to help someone new to the space feel welcome and accommodated.
A Low Profile
Third Places are characteristically wholesome. The inside of a Third Place is without extravagance or grandiosity, and has a homely feel. Third Places are never snobby or pretentious, and are accepting of all types of individuals, from several different walks of life.
The Mood is Playful
The tone of conversation in Third Places are never marked with tension or hostility. Instead, they have a playful nature, where witty conversation and frivolous banter are not only common, but highly valued.
A Home Away From Home
Occupants of Third Places will often have the same feelings of warmth, possession, and belonging as they would in their own homes. They feel a piece of themselves is rooted in the space, and gain spiritual regeneration by spending time there.
The concept of a "Third Place" has become popularized and has been picked up by various small businesses, including as a name for various locally owned coffee shops, and is commonly cited in urban planning literature on the issue of community-oriented business development and public space.
Variant forms of the concept include the "community coffee house" and the "community living room", a term which has been adopted by several organizations to describe the model of a cooperatively-run "third space" which includes commercial or non-commercial functions with an emphasis on providing a free space for social interaction.
The general store or pub and occasionally bookstore or diner are traditional variants of the concept, provided in such cases there is an emphasis on expectation of socialization, and customers are invited to stay and "hang out" with or without making any (or additional) purchases. Institutions which traditionally provided some functions of a third place included shared leisure facilities such as a bowling alley or arcade, function halls, lodges or social clubs, when and if facilities were available for casual use.
A church community fills this role for many people, including groups that focus on common interests and hobbies. Activities, events, and cell groups can build the connections that are necessary for authentic community.
An increasing percentage of American workers now telecommute, not from home, but from a third place. Workers cite isolation when telecommuting from home and find working in public spaces a happy medium between the home office and the corporate office. Availability of public wifi has been a major enabler of this trend, and an increasing number of retail chains are catering to it.
A traditional public house encourages social contact between patrons. But a third place which provides internet access may create a hollow effect in that the patrons are physically present but do not make social contact with each other, being absorbed by their remote connections. This is similar to how patrons behave in learning commons environments like those in university libraries where the preponderance of socializing is among people who already know each other. Some café owners are trying to ameliorate this effect by staging performance art such as live jazz and turning off the wi-fi to encourage audience engagement.
- Urban sociology
- Community building
- Fiscal localism
- Urban planning
- Public space (urban design)
- Public house (pub)
- General store
- Coffeehouse (event)
- Social center (activism)
- Robert Putnam, author, Bowling Alone
- Ray Oldenburg, author, The Great Good Place
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- Charles Soukup, Computer-mediated communication as a virtual third place: building Oldenburg’s great good places on the world wide web
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- Malaby, Thomas; Christopher Cooley, David Stack (November 2011). "How Are Students Actually Using IT? An Ethnographic Study". ECAR Research Bulletins 17.
- The new oases, The Economist, April 10, 2008
- Oldenburg, Ray (1989). The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. New York: Paragon House. ISBN 978-1-55778-110-9. (Hardback)
- Oldenburg, Ray (1991). The Great Good Place. New York: Marlowe & Company. ISBN 978-1-56924-681-8. (Paperback)
- Oldenburg, Ray (2000). Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories about the "Great Good Places" at the Heart of Our Communities. New York: Marlowe & Company. ISBN 978-1-56924-612-2.