Society’s Living Room –Third Places and the Effect COVID-19 is Having on Them

Third places are hugely important in the fabric of everyday life. They build connections between people of different professions, age groups, socio-economic status and cultures, provide those with few social interactions an opportunity to do so and support the areas in which they are located, by encouraging people to regularly return. Let us define a third place, a term originally coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in 1984. The third place is a public space where people spend time between the first place, their home, and the second place, which is their work. They are, in a way, society’s living room. This is the idea put into its simplest terms. However, third places do have some important defining characteristics. After all, if you think of all the places where people spend time in neither their home nor work, the list would be endless.

According to Oldenburg, proper third places have eight defining characteristics:

  • Neutral Ground
  • A Levelling Place 
  • Conversation 
  • Accessibility and Accommodation
  • The Regulars 
  • Low Profile 
  • Playful 
  • Home Away from Home

Third places will vary slightly and if one of these characteristics is missing, that doesn’t mean the space is automatically excluded from fitting the definition. One of the most important features of third places is informality and that there are no requirements on who visits the space. It is somewhere that generates and encourages conversation, a place where all backgrounds are welcome and where people feel free to come and go as they please. A good third place fosters spontaneous relationships between people from all different social and economic backgrounds. There are no obligations tied to third places. The “society’s living room” idea comes from the fact that these places’ occupants experience the same feelings of warmth, belonging and comfort that they would in their own living room. Another key feature is having a group of regulars. In some cases it may only be evident to those regulars that a certain space is indeed a third place. To any other passerby, this said third place may just look like another corner store or pocket park, but to the group that frequents the spot it holds special meaning to them.

Photo source

According to Oldenburg, third places are both accessible – meaning anyone who wants to can access and enter these spaces — and are neutral ground, a place where there are no financial, political or legal obligations to be there. These things would imply that a proper third place would be one that is fully public and free of cost to occupy, though this is not always the case. Some common examples of third places include coffee shops, libraries, dog parks, community centres, bars, corner stores, parks and public squares. Third places are preferably inexpensive as this ensures that people from all income brackets feel welcome, but the key aspect to making third places what they are is the connection to the broader community that is felt by its visitors.

As can be seen with the examples listed above, third places are often indoors and located within commercial or institutional buildings. These are some of the industries that have been impacted most heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic. Full closures of institutions and businesses in the service industry have had a severe impact on community third places.

When Nova Scotia had a lucky streak of zero cases and indoor dining was permitted, many cafes still had rules in place that restricted the casual and interactive atmosphere of third places. It was a commonality around Halifax for coffee shops to limit the amount of time their patrons were able to stay, to a 1 hour maximum. This rule removes the feeling of being allowed to come and go whenever you please and puts limits on the spontaneity of conversations that arise in café settings. Additionally, if you were allowed to sit and dine-in, many establishments also asked that you not mingle with other groups and stay in your “bubble”, for safety reasons. This made those spontaneous conversations, crucial to making third places what they are, nearly impossible to happen. This wasn’t just the case in coffee shops – bars and pubs had similar rules. Independent book-stores, another common example of a third place, still required patrons to physical distance, making conversation difficult. Folks were also discouraged from touching the books unless you intended to purchase them, taking away the appeal of wandering around said space and stumbling upon an intriguing novel, then striking up a conversation with the person in the same aisle as you.

Photo source

These third-place-having, small independent businesses may face a more long-term issue created by the pandemic. Many of these establishments rely heavily on people who come to do work there, whether that be students or individuals in the workforce. There has been a decline in this demographic sitting down and staying in cafes, as the take-out-only and time limiting restrictions make working in this environment impractical. Additionally, people who may not have felt comfortable with sitting inside, unmasked may choose to stay home to work. With a loss of these regular patrons, many small businesses are worried about whether they will be able to stay afloat throughout the pandemic, threatening important community third places.

Photo source

If they are able to endure the loss of revenue due to the pandemic, the rise of remote working also poses a threat to third places. Remote work is a style of work that allows employees to work outside of the traditional office environment. It is based on the premise that you do not have to be in a certain place to complete your work tasks successfully with flexibility at the core of the idea. The benefits of remote working have been realized by many employers and it is likely that remote work will remain a popular model even after the pandemic eases up. While this is only an option for certain types of workers, especially remote work that can be done outside of your home, it is likely that once restrictions are eased, there will be a resurgence in cafe workers. The welcoming atmosphere and conversational elements of third places are taken away if every single person has their eyes glued to a computer screen. This demographic is important for cafes to flourish as a business, but it is unfair to see people who utilize them as third places to lose hold of a place that they would consider theirs.  If third places are going to be lost, the people pushed out must have other options. Providing truly public spaces which the community can utilize as a new third place is crucial for creating a socially sustainable city.

The inability to take part in activities that normally happen in third places could potentially be detrimental to the well-being of our communities. The levelling effect of these places, meaning that social hierarchies are mostly suspended, has a significant social benefit by helping to unify neighbourhoods and bring people together. The welcoming nature and fact that third places are located in public spaces helps to reduce feelings of wariness towards strangers. The characteristics of third places provide a sense of community where there may otherwise be little option for interaction. Oldenburg argued that people need more than what they are provided with in their home and work, and “that there is a shuffle back and forth between the first and second place in a constricted pattern of daily life that easily generates a desire to ‘get away from it all’”. Third places provide an opportunity to “get away from it all” without actually leaving your community, which is especially important when considering equity as certain groups may not be able to leave their community.

The sense of community that third places create is a crucial point, especially since the pandemic began. As people have been forced to stay home, reduce social interactions and limit contact with other people in general, many have felt increased feelings of loneliness, social isolation and increased mental health struggles. For some, third places are an essential escape from their home environment. Third places are needed now more than ever, but many of them cannot be accessed. There are some demographics that rely on third places more than others. The elderly population is more prone to social isolation and loneliness. Third places are particularly important for them because they facilitate social relationships and may be the only way for them to keep in touch with others. Since a larger percentage of the elderly population compared to other age cohorts does not drive, ensuring that these places are located within close proximity to their residence is essential. Locality is also very important to individuals who are of lower socio-economic status. They may see third places as a reprieve from their home but may not necessarily have a car or the means to pay for public transit in order to get to third places farther away.

We are hopeful that when the majority of our population is vaccinated all of our favourite spots in the community will still be in business and continue to thrive as third places. We are even more hopeful that this pandemic has proven how important public spaces are. Public spaces serve a variety of purposes, are accessible to truly everyone and those which are located outdoors have proven to be the safest option when it comes to the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Halifax is lucky to have a number of outdoor public spaces that could act as third places, but in many urban centres this is not the case. Ensuring that we design our communities for a variety of uses and all walks of life is crucial to a community’s well-being. The best third places are ones that form organically and it is up to the community to transform any old space into a third place, but at the very least urban planners and city leaders need to ensure there are accessible options that allow this to happen.