Across the development spectrum, commercial and residential real estate often serve as the bookends with people living in certain areas and working in others. Some have opted for cross-over, mixed-use spaces where living in the same vicinity or even the same building delivers convenience and simplicity. However, these are just a few classifications in the expansive, multifaceted world of spaces for people. Consider the value of ‘third places’ that continue to claim ever-greater importance.
Third places offer a forum for social interaction, recreation, entertainment, culture, relaxation and community building. Sometimes, third places are businesses – as in the case of restaurants, art galleries, gyms, salons and the like – but it is not the dollars and sense of commerce that ties these spaces to the people they serve. Rather, it is the inherent ability of them to bring people together that makes them meaningful. And yet, in the wake of an ongoing social standstill, caused by the global pandemic, more than 60 percent of the 30.7 million small businesses across the United States, have closed their doors and left a hole where a third place once benefited both society and the economy.
As social beings by nature and mental health issues at an all-time high, it was only a matter of time before people began developing their own, unconventional third places. Driveways transformed into outdoor gyms. Normally quiet neighborhoods began gathering in socially distanced front-yard block parties. People have shown a strong willingness to adapt and be creative in the pursuit of safe interactions, which has perhaps illuminated a blueprint for the future.
Knowing that demand for third places is strengthening, urban planners and landscape architects have been challenged to redesign the idea of third places and their relation to the public realm. Our industry has always valued fresh air, sunshine and a connection to nature, but now that thinking is accompanied by a greater urgency to understand community tendencies and how they shift in response to social change. By observing through the lens of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who coined third places as ‘hangouts at the heart of the community’, it is apparent that flexible space has become a staple for re-establishing social relationships.
Reconfiguring third places for the future must also emphasize multi-purpose design and bridge the gap between man-made and natural systems. Parks will move towards eliminating over-programming, as sports fields and playgrounds are replaced with trails and respite zones. Streets and parking garages will continue to be shut down and utilized for outdoor dining and open-air workspaces. Sidewalks and courtyards, once viewed as places of transition, will become outdoor shopping bazaars lined with vendors and retailers.
While the current trend of make-shift third places spark new creative outlets, their long-term success is rooted in infusing a place with meaning. Public spaces, originally designed to promote democracy and the expression of human rights (as seen within landmark destinations such as The Agora in Athens, Greece), have been overexposed in recent years – losing sight of their intended purposes. Through the rise of social justice movements, public spaces are revisiting their historic roots with a heavy emphasis on inclusion as an essential for economic and community building.
Ultimately, the lines between live, work and play will continue to blur, allowing for purposeful design that embraces adaptive reuse, allows for safe social engagement and limits uncertainty for the end-user. As the bond between people and the environment grows stronger, so will the importance of localism and regional history within the placemaking process. The success of a third place will no longer be measured on its yearly revenue or national popularity, but on its resilient nature, ability to adapt and contributions made to its local community.