The Third Place
Often considered a hot spot for conversation, cafés and coffee shops have long been known as a comfortable place to read the newspaper, catch up on gossip and talk politics. For more than three hundred years, cafés have been the hub of all that’s going on. Unfortunately, over the last fifty years, urban sprawl started taking its toll and attendance and popularity began to dwindle.
“Thirty years ago, nobody had ever heard of The Third Place,” said author, educator and urban sociologist Dr. Ray Oldenburg in an interview from his Florida home. “The Third Place,” as it’s commonly called, is a place or a building that is separate from the two usual social environments of work or home.
“If the first place is home, if the second place is work, then the third place is where community happens,” Oldenburg said. “It’s a place that encourages sociability instead of isolation, allowing people a place to relax and unwind.”
So in the 1980’s, as the Seattle coffee boom swept the nation, cafés and coffee shops began to reemerge as an escape from the cabin fever of marriage and family life as a pleasurable, inexpensive diversion.
“In theory, the third place really caught on,” he said. “Unfortunately, because so much of America is so heavily suburban, there aren’t a lot of places for people to come together within walking distance.”
That’s why Oldenburg continues to suggest that towns and governments work together with developers to make zoning changes that will combine modern convenience and people’s need to come together as a community.
“Life without community has produced, for many, a lifestyle consisting mainly of the home-to-work and back-again shuttle,” according to Oldenburg. “Right now we’re the only suburban nation in the world like this.”
Luckily, there are people like Jill Marie and David Benson in Raleigh, North Carolina that are working to change that behavior. Several years ago they purchased The Third Place Coffeehouse, in the Five-Points neighborhood of Raleigh.
After launching the coffee shop, Marie and Benson began The Third Place Coalition, which provides local business owners a unique networking opportunity as well as a comfortable place to meet with clients within the Five-Points neighborhood.
“It started out as simply something to do for the neighborhood,” said Kevin Kirkman, owner of WebUneek, a website design firm. “We wanted someplace to go, someplace to meet with clients, as well as do something for the community.”
According to Kirkman, the coalition meets once a month to plan community events and support local artists and musicians. “It’s nice to see familiar faces,” he said. “There’s always interesting people there. Some of them are there religiously.”
And that was really the goal of creating the third place, according to Dr. Oldenburg. “The character of the third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by its playful mood,” he said. “It’s really the heart of a community’s social vitality.”