August 6th, 2013

OPINION – Why ‘Third Place’ is a Good Place

headshotThird place, often associated with the consolation prize in competitions of all types, is actually the best place when it comes to the concept of community building.  In this context,  ‘third place’ refers to our social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments in which we spend most of our time: home (first place) and work (second place). Often times, we can’t wait to get to our third place to escape from first and second place.

We all have a third place, though most of us never give it much thought. In fact, some of us may have several third places.  These can run the gamut from  a cafe, gym, a favorite restaurant or pub, library, hair salon, coffeehouse, etc.  They are the places you may frequent on a regular basis, kind of like your Cheers – where everybody knows your name.

In his influential book, The Great Good PlaceRay Oldenburg argues that third places are essential for civic engagement, and establishing a sense of place.  While we actually spend most of our time in our home and workplace (first and second place), third places, according to Oldenburg, provide “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader more creative interaction.  Oldenburg suggests several key criteria for 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
  • Both new friends and old should be found there

There are eight characteristics that define a third place, as described by Oldenburg.  I’m including just six here, as I deem these to be the most important:

Neutral Ground 

Occupants of third places have little to no obligation to be there.  They are free to come and go as they please.


Third places put no importance on an individual’s status.  Someone’s economic and 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.

The Regulars

Third places harbor a number of regulars that help give the space its tone, and help set the mood and characteristics of the place.  Regulars to third places also attract newcomers, and are there to help someone new to the space feel welcome and accommodated.

The Mood is Playful

The tone of conversation in third places is never marked with tension or hostility. Instead, it has 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.

One important element I have always found key to a popular and successful third place is the presence of a longtime proprietor(s) and staff who  provide familiarity, hospitality and service excellence on a consistent basis.  In my experience, these characteristics are generally found in a small business establishment of the mom and pop variety, with a few exceptions.  My favorites, over time, have included Cafe Italia in Little Italy, Athens Market & Taverna, the sushi bar at the Fish Market, and Brooklyn Girl.

Come to think of it, it’s not so much the characteristics of the place, but the characters to be found there.

What about you?  Care to share a favorite third place or two?


1 comment to OPINION – Why ‘Third Place’ is a Good Place

  • The concept is excellent – 3rd place. Italians have built this 3rd place into the structure of almost every town, village, and city – La Piazza. Each of the particular 3rd places Sal mentions is generally found at or near a piazza & this is a fairly common European phenomenon. It’s changing. But with a lot of transportation infrastructure, there’s still a tendency to find an urban dwelling rather than ex-urban, although most of those cities have little to no room for expansion, even up.

    Urban experience in the first 1/3 of the 20th century is in some ways similar to those now: Costly energy, difficult transportation to work, centralization of resource distribution as technology shifted from one form to another.

    San Diego has few of the 3rd places we would imagine or like to be prevalent, unless you live in certain neighborhoods that offer up more than one pleasurable experience. North Park, Hillcrest…but not downtown which should be at the top of the list.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>