A Third Place To Be



A couple of months ago Mike Lanza, of Playborhood fame, introduced me to the concept of a third place to be.  I’ve copied the Wikipedia intro as it is a great summary of the idea:

The third place (also known as third space) is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. In his influential book The Great Good PlaceRay Oldenburg (1989, 1991) argues that third places are important for civil societydemocracycivic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place.

Oldenburg calls one’s “first place” the home and those that one lives with. The “second place” is the workplace — where people may actually spend most of their time. Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. All societies already have informal meeting places; what is new in modern times is the intentionality of seeking them out as vital to current societal needs. Oldenburg suggests the following hallmarks of 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
  • Welcoming and comfortable
  • Both new friends and old should be found there

What strikes me abou this idea is that when you talk to adults about their most memorable play experiences they almost always occur in just such a “third place”.  I think this is exactly what is missing for today’s kids.  If you can’t leave your yard or your block, where is your third place?  The local playground isn’t a third place because you can’t be there on your own.  To make this idea more relevant to its applications to children we have to replace “work” with “school” or other adult led education, i.e. sports. Second, we have to add, you can “change stuff”.  This ability to dig a hole, dam a stream, pluck a flower, build a hide-out are also the most frequent cherished play moments.

I think this is the formulae for what I have been seeking with the pattern language idea.  There is no amount of innovation that will make the existing model of playgrounds into such a third place.  No matter how great the backyard it is extremely rare that the qualities we, and kids, seek will be found there.  This idea is very powerful and I’m going to have to mull it over more and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “A Third Place To Be

  1. Great topic! It seems in Portland OR the third place for adults have become the coffee shops and bars. People spend lots of time hanging out, working and meeting one another there. But, neither is particularly inviting to children.

    As a child my third place was the empty lots in our neighborhood that were kind of forgotten about, but not wild enough that our parents would not let us play there alone. I agree that today’s playground can not serve this function.

    I live in a pretty dense part of the city and the only comparable space I can think of to my youth would be the occasional weedy back alley between blocks. Who knows what kids would find there! But I like the back play alley idea because it is fairly protected (only two open ends), attaches to many yards, can be seen easily (but not too directly) by many eyes. I would love to read any further thoughts and ideas.


  2. Portland understands these issues is one of the best, outside of Euro, at getting it. So many good things there from place making to great bike trails. Oh did I mention the food?

    For today’s kids the 3rd place is the Internet. Sadly its it only “safe” place parent allow their kids to navigate on the naive assumption that their porn filters work. Unless we begin to find ways to reinstitute 3rd places this will be our future. God help us.


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