As people across the globe find themselves creeping out of long quarantines, many have come to the realization that socialization simply isn’t as easy as it once was. As many of us now struggle to find conversation starters, we pine for the days when discussions came naturally to us and talking to people outside our inner circles was not a chore. But even before COVID-19, spontaneous conversations between strangers were hard to come by. As technological advancements and the ever-increasing suburban sprawl phenomenon keep people home, the decline of third places is no longer imminent, but a scary reality.
Third places, a phrase coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, are hangout spots that are separate from the home, school and workplace. They pose no financial difficulties for entry and are typically a breeding ground for random and impromptu conversation. Third places can be libraries, coffee shops or pubs, to name a few. Centered around lively conversation, these places are meant to be comfortable, inviting spaces that make one willing to return.
Recently, however, they have been replaced by virtual chat rooms and social media platforms. The onset of the pandemic also introduced Zoom, a video chatting application that allowed schools and workplaces across the world to continue working during the pandemic. Now, people are increasingly becoming comfortable with platforms like Zoom and are abandoning traditional third places. The decline of third places is an indication that physical human interaction and communication is decreasing as well.
Although technological advancements are to blame for the decline of third places, so are other factors, like the toxic work culture prevalent in the US. In a society that prioritizes productivity, leaving some free time in one’s schedule to commute to a third place sounds unnecessary and counterproductive. Moreover, the suburban sprawl phenomenon that has intensified since the 1950s does not allow for accessible transportation, making it harder for people to visit third places. The ideal third place is also relatively close to home, but the low-density, isolated residential areas that comprise suburban neighborhoods are often bereft of third places.
Cary L. Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology and health at the Alliance Manchester Business School, says, “Those venues and spaces provide people with an imperceptible feeling of being socially connected and part of a community. That’s quite important for being productive and imaginative. There’s no doubt they’re much more stimulating than any home office.” A refuge from domestic and professional labor, third places are the key to a happy society. Their revival is imperative for the well-being of all citizens.
In order to allow third places to thrive, cities and suburbs can implement certain changes. For example, providing adequate and accessible public transportation, along with convenient checkpoints and routes, will allow more people to commute to a nearby third place. Providing free WiFi at third places can turn them into meeting points that will further encourage people to visit them. Existing laws can also be mended to aid the cause of reviving third places. For example, a provision of the Affordable Care Act requires hospitals to analyze health needs on a local level and use their resources to meet those needs. Since third places are important in bolstering the mental health and happiness of community members, hospitals can help in making them more accessible by working with local agencies and businesses.
On an individual level, we must all recognize the power of spending time at third places and the benefits they can bring to our mental health. By taking initiative and visiting third places more often, we contribute to their revival. These visits can be as simple as study sessions at coffee shops or strolls through parks.
In a post-COVID world, visiting third places may seem like an especially daunting task as many grapple with a newfound sense of social anxiety or loss of conversational skills. Allowing oneself a slow return to social settings may prove to be an easy and smooth transition to a post-COVID life. Anxiety expert Hillary Ammon recommends slow breathing exercises during seemingly frightening social situations. Ammon also says to “avoid avoidance,” or to not let feelings of anxiety prevent one from re-entering public spaces. Frequenting familiar third places until one is more comfortable visiting others can be another helpful way of transitioning from quarantine to a more social life.
Although major technological and societal changes have led to the endangerment of third places, reviving them is possible with the help of policymakers and average citizens alike. As Ray Oldenburg says, “Joyful association in the public domain is far better than watching television in our lifeless subdivisions.” Bringing third places back to life is crucial for the health and betterment of society.