Where Have All the Great, Good Places Gone?: The Decline of the “Third Place”

In his 1989 book The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to describe “public spaces crucial for neighbourhoods as a space to interact, gather, meet and talk,” often with little to no cost of entry. If the “first place” was home and the “second place” was work or school, the “third place” would be a public place where you could socialize with people not found in either. Here, conversation was the main purpose and one could interact with both regulars and strangers. 

Throughout history, coffee shops, public parks, libraries, salons, and malls have represented third places: informal and communal spaces beyond our homes and workplaces where people could gather, socialize, and enjoy one another’s company. Their existence has been crucial to building the vibrant social fabric of cities. If the metropolis is meant to be “a place of spontaneous new encounters,” as urban activist Jane Jacobs said, then third places have been crucial for fostering and protecting space where people can create and experience organic encounters, experience a sense of psychological ownership, and exist without expectations of productivity.  

But as a result of a multitude of factors, the availability and accessibility of these crucial places have been on the decline. The growing lack poses a profound threat to both our collective and individual well-being by contributing to an increasingly atomized, isolated society and giving rise to a silent but pervasive epidemic of loneliness

Why are Third Places declining?

Rising Costs

As the cost of living skyrockets, especially in cities, access to third places either becomes gate-kept by the imposition or increase in cost of entry. Coffee shops, historically the archetype of a low-cost and vibrant third place, become less and less accessible as the price of a cup of coffee increases. These prices, which also function as the cost of entry to a third place, continue to increase steadily in Canada due to supply chain issues and rising inflation. Where coffee shops continue to exist, they exist as spaces ruled by expectations of productivity rather than relaxation or conversation: increasingly, the norm of people with their laptops at cafes has placed productivity at the paramount of every hour of our lives, even leisure. 

Cities, with their high density and walkability, usually host many third places that people could easily access on foot.  But their escalating costs of living have pushed people out of urban city centers and towards suburban living. The low density created by single-family zoning has left suburbs with fewer third places for people to access. Public pools, for example, become replaced by private backyard pools in a way that represents the growing isolationism. 

Simultaneously, third places that are free to access, like libraries and public parks, are reliant on public funding to support their operations. These institutions find themselves increasingly at risk of slashed funding and waning public support. 

The New York Public Library is one of the locations that is no longer offering Sunday service due to budget cuts. NYC Public Library Research Room Jan 2006 by Diliff is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Online World as a Replacement for the Physical One

As the availability of physical, in-person community spaces declines, people shift to finding community in other spheres, including online. Internet communities, whether they be social media spheres, subreddits, or multiplayer video games, have moved to fill the desire for a sense of community and belonging. As more and more people spend their downtime in solitude with personal screens, leisure time has become increasingly privatized. Meanwhile, entertainment and social connection became easily accessible with just an Internet connection, leaving people with fewer incentives to leave the house. Social media in particular has weakened social connections and mental health, broadening the circle of acquaintances at the expense of the circle of close, meaningful relationships. And as the pandemic accelerated the shift to remote work, it cut into both the second and third place as well. For many white-collar workers who transitioned to remote work and built home offices, boundaries between their first, second, and third places suddenly became fuzzy. 

This is not to argue that all online communities are inferior to in-person ones. Often, online spaces allow people to interact with others of diverse and expansive backgrounds, bond over niche interests, and form a sense of connection and community. They also can function as safe spaces for individuals who constitute a minority in their day-to-day life. However, the way people’s sense of community is increasingly divorced from physical space can contribute to feelings of alienation and isolation. Despite the good that online communities do, they still fail to fully replace the need for the organic, in-person interaction that third places nurture. 

Shuttering Physical Spaces

Shopping and outlet malls, which once represented a gathering place for both young teenagers and elderly people alike, are closing, left vacant, or struggling to survive. Even window-shopping can be done without spending money, making malls a no-cost public space conducive to conversation and simple hanging out. But the rise of e-commerce offers benefits that most malls cannot match, like the ability to browse infinite options and have items delivered for low cost or free. The percentage of Canadians with an Amazon Prime subscription, for example, is 55 per cent; in the United States, it is 76 per cent. Amazon’s free, one-day delivery is a prime example of the incredible speed and convenience of e-commerce that is contributing to the death of the shopping mall and, subsequently, the death of one of suburbia’s last few third places.

Small local businesses, which often served as community cornerstones, are also struggling to survive. The pandemic caused the closure of one in seven small businesses across Canada, with many more being forced to cut down hours and operating costs. These businesses could otherwise have served as important local sites of meeting, exchange, and socialization. Restaurants, for example, are spaces frequented by regular patrons, which are another important feature of the third place. The forced closure of restaurants meant one less space where an individual could feel a sense of belonging and familiarity. 

Shopping malls have struggled to compete with the rise of online shopping and e-commerce. Sarasota Mall at UTC corridor 6 by PCHS-NJROTC is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED.

Looking to the Future

What, then, does this mean for our social lives? There is a reason Oldenburg referred to third places as “the great, good places.” Their loss is the loss of a collective sense of community, feeling of belonging, and the chance for meaningful yet relaxed interactions. More and more people lack close friends and strong social support networks. Loneliness is on the rise, and its long-term health effects are as severe as smoking.

University students arguably have the most access to third places than most others: a walkable, localized campus, regular reason to be in libraries (one of the few, free, and accessible third places still available), and student clubs and activities that are relatively low-cost and accessible. I would urge you to use them and fight for their continued existence, because of their vital importance to our community, sense of collective identity, and feelings of belonging.

Edited by Selin Abali.

Featured Image: Coffee Shop near Times Square” by Neo_II is licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED.