Intern Research – Identifying “Third Places” and Their Importance in Shaping Communities

Written by: Madelyn Myers - Architectural Intern

May 10, 2024

What is a “third place?”

The phrase “third place” refers to any space that is not our homes (the first place) or the workplace (the second place). Ray Oldenburg, urban sociologist and author of The Great Good Place, is most known for coining the term “third place”.  These spaces for informal, free social interaction can take many forms such as cafes, libraries, gyms, parks, places of worship, shopping malls, or even your local hair salon. Third places typically address these main characteristics – is a neutral ground, transcends social hierarchies, promotes conversation, is open and accessible, attracts regulars, and is overall a home away from home.

There has been a noticeable disappearance of third places in America, especially due to the effects of Covid-19.

Higher costs of living and the need to use a car to get from point A to point B has made it difficult for people to have the motivation to visit third places. Due to most third places in America being places of business, it is hard for them to remain open and functioning with lack of clientele. A lot of green spaces and third places in densely populated areas raise local living costs and hold a certain “VIP” treatment as well; many of these spaces are created for college campuses, high-end apartment buildings, or other private groups. Overall, there are hardly any year-round, walkable, inexpensive third places that are available to all.

Image: Coney Island

It is more common now to see third place-oriented design strategies being applied to the revitalization of communities in cities, but has this left the suburbs ignored?

Through a design project focusing on Leo-Cedarville, IN, I aimed to start a discussion of the extensive and complicated factors of third places. When I thought of growing up here as a child, I couldn’t recall a free, accessible third place that I frequented often. After further research, I concluded that although Leo has opportunities for connection and leisure, they are mostly accessible by car. For example, Leo’s nearby parks/playgrounds and downtown development are too far for most people to safely walk or ride their bikes to.

The proposed design includes a current 2-acre lot, housing the First Merchants Bank and ATM, in Leo, Indiana.

Its proximity to prominent establishments such as the Planet Fitness, Dollar General, CVS pharmacy, the local high school, and a church, adds substantial convenience for this building to transform to a buzzing coastal hub for the community.

The vision includes comprehensive revamping of the existing structure, assuming the interiors will be gutted and built from scratch. The key highlight of the design is the inclusion of enhanced accessibility elements – new sidewalks and landscaping that seamlessly integrate with the existing infrastructure. The overall design is flexible and adaptable, catering to multiple needs.

The exterior includes a volleyball net, hammock, and playground equipment, transforming it into an ideal spot for family outings or fun-filled hangouts. The existing drive-through will be converted into a patio area, complete with seating and sails to provide shade, perfect for group gatherings or individual relaxation.

The building itself is designed to provide an expansive, open concept.

The interior has been divided into three areas: a game area, a study space, and a collaboration/meeting area. These aim to offer various functions and accommodate different social or individual needs. The installation of garage doors will allow for the space to open up during warm weather, adding a sense of freshness and openness.

Primary inspiration was drawn from the new addition to Ball State University’s Rinard Orchid Greenhouse. The proposed design strives to be a lively and engaging spot in the community, fostering social interaction while offering practical solutions.

A great start to creating any third place is to analyze the city planning of the area and to draw connections between various hubs of activity.

As Ray Oldenburg once said: “What suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably — a ‘place on the corner,’ real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile.” At the bare minimum, providing safe and accessible pedestrian paths can elevate a community and hopefully begin to form pockets of interactivity.

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