What is a “third place?”

Imagine you’re you, only it’s 20 years ago. (So yeah, that’s 2004. Not 1984, when it feels like 20 years ago should be.)

You wake up, take the train into work, and do your job in the office from 9-5 (and not any longer, if you’re lucky). Before you head home, you walk to your favorite bar for a couple drinks with some work friends. On Wednesdays you bus over to the youth shelter, where your sister got you into volunteering last year, and you get to catch up with some past residents-turned-volunteers who you haven’t seen in a while. On Friday evening, you and your friends head to your usual spot for trivia night, where your rival team greets you with a mixture of smirks and rude gestures. Ah, feels like home.

I’ve just described several examples of a “third place,” a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in 1989 to describe a public, social, and familiar space that a person frequents regularly to engage with others in a shared interest – a place that is, notably, not their workplace or their home. It’s a place where someone knows your name, and you know theirs. While some people today have healthy and distinctly defined first (home), second (work), and third spaces, many of us do not – especially those who work from home, live in rural or suburban areas, or (god forbid) both.

A third place…

  • Is public and free, or at least very accessible
  • Ideally does not require a car to get to, or at least doesn’t require you to travel very far
  • Provides socialization and psychological support in an unstructured environment
  • Does not involve obligations (such as work or other tasks)
  • Allows you to get “out of the box” in some way – whether by introducing you to new people, new experiences, or both
  • Allows people to focus on conversation and forging connections
  • Facilitates neighborhood unity and friendship
  • Acts as a breeding ground for ideas and community organization
  • Is comfortable, homey, and accepts all walks of life

As you might have guessed, the decline of the third place began far before the rise of the remote worker, back when urban sprawl became rampant and rising costs of living drove people away from city centers. While some more rural communities manage to hold on to their third spaces, the isolationist urge of many modern day Americans is never more apparent than when you drive through a suburb at any given time of day or night: everyone is tucked away into their separate boxes, drowning out the noise of the rest of the world with a television.​​

But most of us didn’t wake up one day and decide to live that way. Lower walkability scores, terrible traffic, and the expense of transportation all coalesce to keep more people at home. Cities are designed for cars and commerce, not for people.

It’s simply become more inconvenient, more expensive, and more difficult to spend significant portions of our off-work time out of the home.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of hermit-ish lifestyle, it can leave many people feeling unsatisfied, unfulfilled, or confused. Work slips into home life, and home life just becomes….life. Except for errands, shopping trips and drop offs, the need to leave the house becomes near nonexistent. So many of us just don’t do it. But what kind of impact does this have on our communities and our psyches?

What does this mean for us?

Well, to quote Oldenburg, “What suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably.”

So what happens when those kinds of spaces become few and far between? Well, several things. First, as mentioned, the different facets of your life can start to bleed into one another. Maybe a third place offers an escape from the neverending to-do list at home, a place where you don’t have to think about your productivity, or a place to be creative when your usual environment gets stale. Without that separation, we tend to… circle the drain, a bit.

However, the decline of third places also has a larger impact on society, particularly on community and social connection. In the olden days, third places were spots where you might be likely to meet people of a similar mind, or people who care about the same things you do. Whether that’s politics, literature, dog rescuing, or craft beer, these spaces encourage connection, self expression, and the sharing of social values.

These locales aren’t just places for extroverts and drinking, either – they can be places that provide just the right amount of non-overwhelming social interaction, or even places for community rallying and activism. (Town hall on Gilmore Girls, anyone?) And, on a more serious note, when natural disasters or personal crises occur, they can provide the social connection and neighborhood unity that we need to stay afloat.

Additionally, having a third place has a positive impact on our brains and mood. A study conducted in 2022 by the University of California evidenced that third places have a positive impact on our psychological well being, whether those places were outdoors, like parks, or indoor spaces, like cafes.

Resisting a trend towards isolationism

It’s no secret that American society is becoming increasingly isolationist on the individual level. And while that is a much more complex issue than simply the decline of the third place, it isn’t unconnected. If you disregard what isolationism means for our political and economic life, you can still say a lot about what it means for our wellbeing.

For example: if you don’t have a third place, where are you supposed to go to make new friends? Not to mention that these days, when you go out to a bar or an event, you usually go with a group of people – and people tend to stick with their groups. There is less opportunity for organic, fun social interaction with strangers (future friends!) you may not otherwise have met.

And don’t get me wrong, I understand the urge to stay home and invite some people over for a drink instead of heading out to a regular local spot. But what’s lost in doing that over and over again? What might you have seen and done – who might you have met – along the way? Just something to think about.

So… what can we do about it?

First of all, let’s be clear: remote work isn’t to blame for this phenomenon. Actually, remote work gives us even more opportunities to find our third place – we just have to reach out and take them.

However, I do have a disclaimer – and it’s one that you may have already figured out. The third place has got to be a place, not a URL. While social media and the internet may seem like one giant third place, you lose a lot of the positive effects by attempting to take the phenomenon online.

Some ideas for finding your third place:

  • Work from a new coffee shop or tea house in your area – hitting one new spot a week – until you find the right one. Then, keep going back there at least once a week.
  • What do you care about? I mean really. Start volunteering with an organization that’s taking action on something you give a shit about.
  • Have you been to your local library? Do you have a library card? Do you even know where the library is? Consider this an #ad for libraries. I love them. You will too.
    Disclaimer: you cannot drop your kid off at the library and leave. They don’t like that.
  • The YMCA. Nope, it’s not just for retired folks. YMCAs and other community centers organized around fitness and activities can be great spots to meet people, get moving, and see familiar faces when you need them.
    Not into that? What about an exercise group? Given that third places should prioritize connection and conversation, getting together and running in silence probably doesn’t count – but if you all met up before or after working out to hang out and get to know each other, it certainly does.
  • If you’re religious and already spend time at a place of worship, why not find out how you can get more involved? Volunteering, teaching, or just attending more after-hours events can all lead you to finding your new third place.
  • Force your friends to meet you somewhere. We’ve all seen Friends. We’ve all seen Seinfeld. Don’t you want what they have? Minus the fashion sense and George’s bad luck? I know I do. Make your friends meet you out at a regular spot until people know who you are. Forcibly create your third place. Take over the world! Create your own sitcom!
  • Have you ever been to a co-working space? Me neither. That could be fun, though! It would certainly provide a unique opportunity to have colleagues who aren’t actually your colleagues.
    Note: they also have these for artists! If you make art, consider renting a studio space that isn’t a spare corner of your house. You might meet some pretty cool people.
  • “A person walks into a bar…” If you’re like me, it can feel a little intimidating to walk alone into a place where people are imbibing. However, I’ve noticed a recent uptick in spots where I actually do feel comfortable drinking and dining alone – cafe/bar combos, or bookstores with a wine bar inside. Your city might have one, too.
  • Are you a business owner? Businesses can do a lot to help encourage third places to flourish in their communities, whether through their dollars or through more direct efforts (e.g., creating a small outdoor green space where people who visit and work there can socialize).
    Individuals can do this, too – by using their voices. Speaking up to your representatives when the idea of a new park is being presented, and so forth.

Other tips for finding your third space:

  • Try not to choose a liminal space. For example, if you have kids and they’re on a summer sports team, the temporary community that forms on the bleachers isn’t going to become your third place because it isn’t going to exist for long. That said, relationships forged in those kinds of spaces can definitely lead to a new third space.
  • Having more than one third place is a-okay – nay, it’s encouraged. Go wild.
  • While third places can’t be entirely online, they can start online or be partially online. Some examples of this include writing groups, identity-based groups (such as local LGBTQ+ support groups that start online), fandom or gamer-centric groups that start on Discord, etc. If it starts on an app, website, or forum but turns into an in-person thing, that definitely counts as a third place.
  • Finally, if the idea of finding a third place scares you a little, you’re not alone. COVID times – and also just becoming an adult – took many of us out of the socialization mindset. In a lot of ways, it’s a skill we may have to relearn. And practice…a lot.  Trust that the outcome will be well worth the struggle.

Interested in reading more about third places? Check out Ray Oldenburg’s iconic book, The Great Good Place. You can also read a great Q&A with him on Steelcase. There are also a plethora of articles about the phenomenon, such as this one from The Atlantic.

Interested in moving to the JAMstack? Let's talk.

Want to stay in the know on what we know?

Sign up for our email newsletter. Nothing spammy about it. Just a monthly rundown of what we’re sharing.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.