THE IMPORTANCE OF THIRD PLACES TO INDIVIDUALS AND COMMUNITIES
Third places serve many functions, important both to individuals and to the communities they live in:
1. Third places help unify neighborhoods. Where third places are absent we find that people often live in the same vicinity for years without ever getting to know one another. Indeed, the subdivision resident who knows three other families is something of a social gad-about. Before neighborhood taverns were banished to commercial strips, the average one drew about 80 percent of its trade from within a two-block radius. It served the same function as does the English “local” — creating community where there would otherwise be a regimentation of private dwellings with little interaction between households.
2. Third places also serve as “ports of entry” for visitors and newcomers to the neighborhood where directions and other information can easily be obtained. For new residents, they provide a means of getting acquainted quickly and learning where things are and how the neighborhood works.
One might have thought that the high rate of residential mobility in our society would have inspired planners to make provision for new residents to get acquainted quickly and easily. With almost a fifth of the population changing residence every year, would it not have made sense to create the means for newcomers to be easily assimilated? Instead, the typical residential district is notable for its absence of public places, offering instead of maze of frequently deserted streets.
3. Third places are “sorting” areas. While third places serve to promote the habit of association generally, they are also the places in which those with special interests find one another. In third places, amateur musicians, target-shooting enthusiasts, poetry lovers, fishermen, scuba divers, etc., get introduced and find local outlets for their interests. Here is provided the basis of whatever kind and degree of local culture will emerge. In the modern subdivision, “local” culture is provided by television.
4. Third places can bring youth and adults into association with one another. In soda fountains, diners, family taverns, produce markets, and the like, children of prewar days “hung out” with adults and learned a lot from them. Sadly, as time spent with parents has declined for the nation’s children, so has the time spent with other adults. Between 1965 and 1985, the amount of time parents spent with their children declined by almost half. Meanwhile, those children were increasingly being raised in neighborhoods where contact with other adults was reduced to almost nothing because of the lack of places where they might spend time together.
5. Third places help care for the neighborhood. The people who operate third places are often “public characters,” as described by noted social observer Jane Jacobs. They seem to know everybody in the neighborhood; they keep an eye on the local kids and what they’re up to; they do favors for local customers; and they keep regulars up-to-date on all variety of local matters. Third places also serve as gathering spots when emergencies or disasters occur. People want, and need, to be with other people in these situations — to help and support each other, and to decide on courses of action.
6. Third places foster political debate. From the colonial inn to the old country store, from the neighborhood tavern to the soda fountain, third places have historically served as forums for political debate and discussion. It should surprise no one that political literacy is low in this country; that people don’t know who serves in the President’s cabinet, or who their local legislators are. This kind of information matters to us more when we put it to use by conversing, arguing, and debating with each other. We can better test and refine our opinions by interacting with others, not by simply listening to the pronouncements of television commentators.
7. Third places help reduce the cost of living. Where people meet regularly to relax and enjoy one another’s company, natural support groups or “mutual aid” societies tend to form. As we take our relaxation with people, we grow to like them and, as we come to like them, we are inclined to “do for them.” Third places are also easy places to collect time-saving, labor-saving, and money-saving advice — sometimes without even asking!
8. Third places are entertaining. And the entertainment is provided by the people themselves. The sustaining activity is conversation which is variously passionate and light-hearted, serious and witty, informative and silly. In the course of it, people become very near and dear to one another such that continuity
Television offers the principal form of entertainment today. Yet how many of us, having “surfed” through the available channels two or three times and been bored by it all, wouldn’t like to walk down to the corner and have a cold one (or a hot cup of coffee or tea) with friends and neighbors? Ah, but there’s nothing on the corner, nor in walking distance at all, to easily go to.
9. Third places give the gift of friendship. Not the singular, lifelong “best” friendship necessarily, but the tonic of friends met in numbers. The great boon to friendship is that which is often called “neutral ground” and third places represent the best of it. On neutral ground people avoid the obligations of both guest and host and simply enjoy the company. They come and go without making arrangements or excuses; they may leave the very moment it suits them to do so. It is a very easy form of human association.
When friends meet in numbers, as opposed to “one-on-one,” there is a festive spirit and laughter is frequent. There is an atmosphere of acceptance and belonging that no single friend, no matter how close, can provide.
10. Third places are important for retired people. They provide the means for keeping in touch with others and continuing to enjoy the life of the community. “Only in America,” it seems, do millions of retired people make a final migration away from the cities and towns where they worked and knew people.
“Sun Cities” did not come into vogue until retirees confronted the prospect of trying to find a life in the boring suburbs from which work had provided the only means of regular escape. The young and the active need the elderly and the contributions they have always made to community. But the elderly also need community, and need it more acutely.