As a refresher, “The third place” is a concept which identifies places that are not home (1st place) or work (2nd place).
Third places can be churches, coffee shops, gyms, hair salons, post offices, main streets, bars, beer gardens, bookstores, parks, and community centers.
However, in America, studies suggests that we’ve lost more than 1/2 of the casual gathering places that existed at midcentury.
Why? After World War II, cities built more and more private suburbs.
- The 1948 Housing Bill freed up billions of dollars in credit for new homeowners.
- Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 led to the creation of 41,000 miles of interstate over a 10-year period, making it easier for people to live farther from work.
- By 2010, more than half of the U.S. population lived in suburbs.
Communities were increasingly replaced by separate, quieter, and often homogenous neighborhoods. Mixed-use spaces were increasingly zoned away in favor of strictly commercial or residential uses. The upshot of all this was an increase in personal space at the expense of daily conversations and serendipitous interactions with people from varying backgrounds.
As the building of highways enabled many Americans to move into suburbs from the 1950s and onwards, there were other highways being built concurrently. In the digital realm.
E-mail discussion lists, chat rooms, BBSs, Usenet groups and more all played a role in the development of online communities and social networks that sprouted in 1994+.
As our physical environments became more isolating, we released our reliance on them to entertain or connect us as they once did.
We could build our ideal communities and cities virtually.
Yahoo’s GeoCities was an online community of user-created Web pages from the early days of the Internet. Their main selling point was:
- Ease of use: Users were offered a worldwide audience, and the ability to say things any way they wanted to.
- Community: You weren't just getting a Web page; you were joining a community of users
With its user profiles and pages organized by topic, the service was a precursor to online networks like Facebook, MySpace, Xanga, Blogger and WordPress.
Many influences were abreast in the rising of online communities in the 80s+, however, one can perhaps intuitively contend that the general decrease of civic space and increase in isolation was a material one.
Increasingly, debates that once took place face-to-face happened on the internet, on Facebook, Twitter and countless other digital forums and platforms.
We collectively shied away from public civic discussion in the physical world, preferring to instead engage behind the warm glow of a screen.
Has it ever occurred to us that perhaps this tendency is not what comes naturally. Rather, that we are a product of our environment?
Architectural determinism is a theory employed in urbanism, sociology and environmental psychology which claims the built environment is the chief or even sole determinant of social behaviour.
Winston Churchill famously said:
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
Followed by Marshall McLuhan:
“We shape our tools; thereafter our tools shape us.”
The rise of American suburbs, the decline of civic public space, and the construction of digital communities in their place - all equate to a probability that perhaps our collective tendencies to be an online-first nation are not abnormal.
They are a perfectly normal response to macro trends in the last 50 years.
In understanding how physical space might shape civic engagement, there’s no other better place to look than the birthplace of democracy: ancient Greece.
Yes, new philosophical ideas, scientific discoveries and technological advances, were all imminent. However, physical spaces played a huge role in rich civic life.
Citizens debated everything in-person, from current events to business to the nature of the universe. It’s where they voted for politicians, preserved the law and participated collectively in making decisions for civic matters.
One notable example is the Athenian Agora: An open square that served as a place for political gatherings, the buying and selling of goods, religious services, athletic events, philosophical discussions, educational events and art displays.
Another examples is a stoa: covered walkways or porticos that existed for philosophical discussions and debates. Here, speakers and politicians would converse with the Athenian people from a pedestal called the bema.
In the past, one might strap on their sandals and head to the stoa, floating from huddle to huddle of intense discussion. Today one opens their laptop and scrolls through Twitter or Reddit.
“The piazza, in fact, is ‘un-American’. Americans feel uncomfortable sitting in a square: they should be working at the office or home with family looking at the television.” - Robert Venturi
Like many swinging pendulums throughout history, there are signs that the swing of community into the digital realm has reached its apex.
Today, IRL Connection is in the zeitgeist:
- Religion's role in American society is shrinking
- Remote work is on the rise
- Surveys show that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel lonely.
How We Gather, written by Angie Thurston and Casper Kuile while at Harvard Divinity School, points to the rise of non-secular institutions that serve some of functions that organized religion once served: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability.
Since the release of their landmark research, IRL Member Communities focused on community building have exploded.
In effect, the Athenian agora has become unbundled by America’s private sector.
Identity-based clubs focus on bringing together groups based on shared demographics.
- For women: The Wing, Chief, The Riveter, Revel
- For people of color: Ethel’s Club
- For 45+ and up: Joss Collective
- For parents: The Wonder
Interest-based clubs focus on creating a shared space for people who share particular passions.
- For creatives: Soho House, NeueHouse, Spring Place, Norwood Club, H Club
- For techies: South Park Commons, betaworks studios
- For writers: Center for Fiction
- For wellness-seekers: The Assembly, The Well, Wana
General clubs bring together people across identities and interests (although generally within the same socioeconomic range)
- Union Social Club in Durham, NC, Fitler Club in Philly, PA, Switchyards in Atlanta, GA, The Battery in SF
Though computers, telephones, and television have technically eliminated the need for face-to-face encounters, they have not done so in practice.
The core of city life - exchanges of goods, information, and ideas - still pulsates strongly in the rise of IRL member communities and existing quintessential American third spaces: university campuses, school yards, marketplaces, sports stadiums, parks, and public squares.
With the Covid-19 crisis largely (fingers crossed) behind us, its occurrence has largely heightened our human urge to gather in groups.
Periods of stability interrupted by sudden breaks with rapid change (Thomas Kuhn conceptualizes these changes as paradigm shifts) are opportunities to embark on radically new and bold projects.
Planners, designers, architects, landscape managers and journalists are already writing about how this crisis will transform our relationship with public space (Alter 2020, Florida 2020, Roberts 2020).
Acknowledging their critical community-building role, many cities recently launched economic rescue plans to save this imperiled social infrastructure. A few examples:
- Researchers in the United States are building a database of cities that have implemented cycling and pedestrianization projects in response to COVID-19.
- Cleveland’s ReStart CLE program offered specific funds to businesses, such as grants to help restaurants winterize their outdoor spaces.
- In Philadelphia, a citywide effort dubbed Ready. Set. Philly! promotes a return to work, recreational activities, and spending in downtown corridors.
- A new program in Chicago, Chicago Alfresco, will encourage community gathering in artfully designed outdoor spaces.
- The Washington State nonprofit Washington Trust for Historic Preservation recently created a grant supporting the preservation of third places.
On the other hand, our Internet communities will become increasingly authentic, conducive to civil discourse, and blended with IRL components.
The next decade of social media will move from:
- open → exclusive/semi-private/niche
- many connections → fewer, deeper connections
- curated by algorithms → curated by trusted connections
- ad-driven → community-owned
- designed to collect data → designed for privacy
- growth as key success metric → trust as key success metric
In the summer of COVID-19, Terra Incognita NYC mapped how local communities in NYC’s five boroughs maintained social ties and interaction despite social-distancing mandates; how these interactions and spaces were mediated by technologies.
What they found was that the digital city actually reinforced the physical city.
Whilst technical infrastructure became more important, the physical infrastructure of the “real place” did not lose significance. Some “real places” were severely affected by the financial impact of the pandemic. It was the digital practice of the community that then focused on mobilizing resources to maintain the physical infrastructure.
As such, we’ll begin to see the blurring of our IRL and online communities in a cycle of reinforcement. Members can and will use technology to keep in touch with each other and the larger community when they're not able to meet in person. Technology can also provide the connective tissue that keeps relationships forged in-person going even when members aren't together in the space.
Furthermore, as digital and physical communities become more integrated, online identities will begin to translate to offline interactions (hopefully eliminating the negative behavior of trolls). Bailenson and Yee at Stanford recently coined the Proteus effect, which contended that our online personas actually influence the development of our offline ones, and vice versa.
On the other side of the spectrum, some online communities will prefer to stay predominately or completely online. In these cases, the role of community managers/moderators and blockchain technology will police bad actors and encourage positive-sum behaviors.
Anna Gat’s The Interintellect has taken off as a global community of intellectuals that host frequent salons on philosophy and science, art and technology, finance and history, religion and music.
The strong adherence to the II’s code of honor is deeply respected by the community and enforced by its moderators. One-off meet-ups are routinely organized by its members which serve to further enrich discussions online.
Furthermore, Web3 will better allow creators and their communities to capture and exchange value, forming robust digital economies, and creating a decentralized metaverse.
With the goals of removing intermediaries and giving users power and ownership over their data, identity, security, and transactions, Web 3.0’s predominant guiding principle is verifiability and trust - an antidote to the lawless and identity-less wild west of Web 1.0 and 2.0.
Verifiability makes it easy to hold promises via social contracts to consumers through computable law. In a way, the Internet is becoming a nation by taking what Bitcoin did to money and applying it to all types of programs.
One example of this is a concept recently put forward by Balaji. Cloud Countries or reverse diaspora is a community that forms first on the internet, builds a culture online, and only then comes together in person to build dwellings and structures.
Though it will look very different from an Athenian Stoa, the future of public and civic space in America is bright.
- We learned about the definition of third spaces today and in the past.
- What led to the loss of third spaces in America today.
- And how they will transpire into the future.
Phew! that was a lot. Thanks for traveling with me across 3 issues to dig deeper into third spaces.
I encourage you take my views with a grain of thought (ha) and read the primary literature if you can (as urban planning is not my area of expertise). Check-out Rethinking Third Spaces and The Good Great Place from the OGs.
P.S. In order to continue my investigation on Third Spaces, I recently launched The Third Space - a monthly newsletter where my friends and I review third spaces we love.
We rate third spaces on these criteria: Scent, Vibes, Texture, Lighting, Noise, and Inclusivity.
Can’t wait to continue this conversation there.
If there’s a particular third space in NYC you’d recommend or want me to write about, hit reply and lmk. (We recently all moved to NYC so will be reviewing tons of third spaces in the coming months :D)
As always -