'Third places' strengthen community. Here's how we can rebuild them
Third places – communities outside of our homes, schools or workplaces – were impacted by the pandemic.
“These are the places that can try to help rise up the folks that gather there and provide really critical, sometimes life-saving sources and information for communities,” researcher Jessica Finlay says.
How can we rebuild them?
Today, On Point: How the rebuilding of third places can strengthen our communities.
Danielle C. Rhubart, assistant professor of biobehavioral health and demography at Penn State University. Sociologist who studies rural population health, spatial inequality and the structural and social determinants of health.
Jorge González-Hermoso, research associate at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.
Danielle Maude Littman, assistant professor at the University of Utah College of Social Work.
Bonnie Tsui, author of “Why We Swim” and “American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods.”
ANTHONY BROOKS: Do you have a favorite third place? If home is your first place, work or school is your second place, a third place might be your local bar or café, a library or a park, a place where you can connect with neighbors and build community.
ELIZABETH: I would say my third place is the dog park. It’s a great place to meet other people from other neighborhoods, economic situations, jobs, races, religions. It just brings everyone together. And I find myself spending a lot of time there, especially at the start of the pandemic, it seemed like that was the only place where I could see people and life seemed to be normal.
BROOKS: That’s On Point listener Elizabeth from Baltimore, Maryland. She’s one of many who called in to tell us about their third places.
DAVID: My third place is one of four or five local taverns that I tend to frequent. That’s where everybody knows my name. I’m greeted with a smile. They know the drink I want, and sometimes engage in terrific conversation, either with regulars or entirely new faces.
SUSANNA: It’s a cold water swimming group, and it really took me by surprise to find how engaged I was because I love these people so much and it is a head clearing oasis. At the start of my day, three times a week.
SULE: I’m a percussionist, and most Sundays there’s a group of five to 10, sometime up to 15 drummers and musicians out in Piedmont Park. That’s where I go to make friends and absorb good energy and music from other people.
BROOKS: That was Soleil in Ray, Georgia, Susanna in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and David in Waltham, Massachusetts. Third places provide a sense of social connectedness and belonging. They can strengthen community, even provide essential services.
Access to third places is also linked to better health and happiness. But these spaces have been declining in recent years, and the pandemic only accelerated that. So today, we’re talking about the importance of third places. What they are and how we can rebuild those that have been lost. Joining us now is Danielle C. Rhubart.
She’s assistant professor of biobehavioral health and demography at Penn State University. She studies rural population health and how access to different spaces is connected to wellbeing. And Professor Rhubart, welcome to On Point. It’s great to have you.
DANIELLE RHUBART: Hello. Thank you for having me.
BROOKS: Sure. It’s a great subject. I’m really excited to talk to you about it. Let me start with you personally, if you don’t mind. What’s your favorite third place? Do you have one?
RHUBART: So I’m based in State College, Pennsylvania, which is a college town. So we have lots of third places downtown, including coffee shops. Those are easy places to access as third places in our area. So you can typically find me there for meetings with colleagues and friends.
BROOKS: And what do you get out of that experience? How do you describe the benefit of going to your third place?
RHUBART: Yeah. So when I talk to people about this, there are different ways to use third places. When the people who coined the term first described it, these places where places of sociality and now we look at coffee shops and they can also be places where you get work done. Right? And you’re not actually engaging with other people. And there’s evidence to suggest that even when we go in a more passive way and are on our laptops, there’s still some benefits in sort of building senses of belonging and identity.
But when we actually engage with people and have conversations that can also yield benefits along measures of mental health and wellbeing as well.
BROOKS: So the term third place, if I have this right, was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenberg and Dennis Brissett in the 1980s. What was the original idea, their original idea of a third space?
RHUBART: Yeah, that’s a great question. So they published this article in 1982 where they basically just summarized Oldenberg, Ray Oldenburg’s research and findings. He had spent a ton of time in French cafes and English pubs and these low cost places where people could gather.
And what he summarized in this paper that there were just a wide array of benefits for individuals, mental health benefits. That these places, you could vet your ideas and thoughts and take social cues from others that really help keep you in touch with reality, that they broader your circle of influence, they expose us to, quite honestly, a wider diversity of people than we’re going to see in our home and our workplace. And they instill in us a sense of wholeness. And they talk a lot about this concern. And I chuckle at this today. It was the 1980s and they were already concerned about the consolidation of work and home, right?
We’re no longer living with grandparents and cousins or uncles, and now there’s also this rise of big box stores. We only have to go to one store to get everything that we need. And so they were really concerned that we are becoming so consolidated, and they saw third places as a way to help.
I say I laugh because now you know, we can buy everything we need from home. And we can work from home. And so I can’t imagine how they would revise that paper 40 years later to think about how important third places can be in the context of these big societal changes.
BROOKS: So it sounds like we’re talking about a lot of different kinds of places.
You mentioned cafes, pubs places that are open to all limited, or no barriers to entry, parks, libraries, coffee shops, beauty salons, bowling alleys, gyms. Houses of worship, even shopping malls. And is the basic idea here that they provide really a means to connect socially and a sense of belonging?
We’re social creatures after all. We need community.
RHUBART: Yes, absolutely. And I will say, the research on this, there’s two branches of it. What you and I are talking about right now, use. How does actually going to these places, how does engaging in these places, how does that translate into benefits for me individually and maybe even for my community?
And then there’s this second branch that talks about availability. And so these are, this is research that’s using an ecological approach, saying, ‘How does having these things in my community, regardless of if I go there or not, how might that benefit me and my community, regardless of if I’m actually going to them.’
BROOKS: Yeah, it’s interesting. And for some time, we’ve known that these kinds of places have been in decline. And I’m thinking specifically back to Robert Putnam’s seminal book “Bowling Alone,” where he talked about people literally going to bowling alleys alone. But the broader point there was that, how community participation had been in decline.
How in American society, leisure has become more privatized. As living conditions improve, people choose to stay home with their nuclear families, watch TV, now we’ve all got our screens to sit in front of. So all of this has worked against the idea of developing these third places, right?
RHUBART: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of unknowns here and opportunities for us to ask important questions. Because with the rise of remote work, yes, people are at home, but people are also using some of these third places to get their work done. And the research shows, yes, meaningful engagement matters, right?
That I’m going regularly and I’m talking with other people, but those weak ties that we form, right, as we see that regular barista behind the counter every week. Or run into a neighbor, that those can also matter for helping us feel connected and less lonely.
And I don’t think we have to be too pessimistic because there’s other ways, even if these spaces are being used in a different way than they were 40 years ago. There’s still opportunities for them to have a positive impact.
BROOKS: That’s good to hear. How as Americans, how do we rate compared to other parts of the country? And I asked this question from this perspective. I was lucky enough to, I grew up in Europe as a kid and I always had, and continue to have a sense right up until today, that there seems to be more of a developed sense of third places.
Of communal places, the local cafe, the local bakery, small neighborhoods in Italian cities, for example, that seem to be more developed in a kind of communitarian way, that perhaps they might not be in America. Do we know how we do relative to the rest of the world?
RHUBART: That’s a good question. There’s lots of research measuring social cohesion and how that differs across different countries. Less work looking at third places and how trying to measure the differences between countries.
What I will say is we have quite a bit of variability even within the U.S., some of my work has shown that, communities with the highest levels of poverty are less likely to have, as they have lower availability of third places, there’s differences across rurality and urbanicity and also across demographic composition. And I think within the U.S. there are certainly sort of these spaces where we could be doing better in providing third places. In a way that can help both the community and the individuals within that space.
BROOKS: Yeah. It seems particularly important as we talk about, and there’s been writing about this recently, a sort of epidemic of loneliness in America. And I have to imagine that this is particularly important for older people. Because we know that as people age, social networks contract, spouses die. People retire. Can you talk a little bit about that, the importance in particular to older people? Yeah, that’s a great question. So actually, we just wrapped up a study that showed that among, so we use national survey data from the behavioral risk factor surveillance system.
And what we found was that among Black and Hispanic older adults in rural America, those who had greater availability of third places were significantly more likely to report that their social and emotional support needs were being met.
So this is saying that having these spaces within a community, within a rural context, can be beneficial to the social and emotional feelings and supports of older adults, regardless of if they’re going to these spaces, that they’re benefiting from having the social cohesion that comes out of having social infrastructure or third places.
BROOKS: Interesting. I want to ask you too, about the advance of social media. We touched on that, but it seems like it encourages people to spend more time alone. Is there an upside at all to social media, or maybe another way to ask that.
Is there such a thing as virtual third places, online third places?
RHUBART: That’s a really great question, and I know some folks who are doing research in that area. I think most people would be willing to acknowledge that while social digital or remote third places can have benefits. They don’t necessarily replace those face-to-face interactions.
BROOKS: We’re talking today about third places, the communities we have outside of the home, school or work, and how they can benefit our individual and communal health. Many of you shared stories about your third places, so let’s listen to a few more.
ROBIN: My local public library is my third place. It’s where I go to have fun, learn something new, and connect with other people. My library has free Wi-Fi, public computers and best of all, friendly, helpful staff. Libraries are for everyone.
RAY ELLEN: 40 to 50 of us meet weekly at O’Neill’s, which is a local pub here in Albuquerque to share a meal and a beer, listen to speakers teach us about issues, debate policies, to see what we want to work on.
MAUREEN: A friend and I set up a refrigerator in our town for people who were food insecure, and it became a place that both of us look forward to going to, to bringing food and meeting the people who were using the fridge, and then all the people that we met that helped us get food in that fridge. It became this great community that was supportive and very caring.
SABINA: My third community would be the volunteer work that I do at Community Servings in Jamaica Plain. My expression of my Judaism is the tenant of tzedakah, and I think one of the major points of that is that the person who is giving gains as much gratification as the person who is receiving. And I think my third community work more than fits that description.
BROOKS: So those were On Point listeners Sabina in Brookline, Massachusetts, Maureen in Skowhegan, Maine. Ray Ellen in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Robin in Stillwater, Oklahoma. My guest is Danielle Rhubart.
She’s an assistant professor of biobehavioral health and demography at Penn State University. And Danielle, a nice range there. Libraries, a pub, a place for the food insecure and someone who does volunteer work through her faith tradition. So there’s a really nice sense of variety about what this can mean to target a third place.
RHUBART: Yes, that’s true. And as I was listening, those were great, great pieces to hear about all the different listeners’ perceptions of their own third places. I thought about how substitutable they are. A lot of my work focuses on rural contexts and where you may only have two or three third places in your community, you may not have a public library.
But the local McDonald’s or the local diner might serve the similar purpose in providing connection. And I think that’s something important to keep in mind of, how do, even in places that are sparsely populated, how can they have spaces that may not look like they would look in an urban center, but can still serve a similar purpose.
BROOKS: Sure. You’ve looked, and we touched on this in the first segment of the program, you’ve looked at disparities according to socioeconomic factors around third place availability. Can you tell us a little bit more about that research?
RHUBART: Yeah, so as I mentioned earlier, we know that third places are less available in places with the highest levels of poverty.
And that’s problematic because we know that these spaces can also be used for a social upward mobility, right? And so having less access to those that are problematic. We also see that, when we measure per capita, so the number of third places per person even differences across the rural-urban continuum.
So them being less, less available in rural settings, and then also some differences across racial composition with communities with the largest shares of non-Hispanic whites being home to some of the most third places. And recognizing the potential consequences of that as we think about providing folks not only opportunities for their own health and wellbeing, but also for community development, which we know can be linked to social third places as well.
BROOKS: And how should we be responding to those inequities? And let me focus for, as one example, on fewer third places in rural spots, for example. What are some of the approaches to deal with that?
RHUBART: Yeah, so that’s a great question. So investing in and supporting free or commercial third places can typically get a buy-in from folks on both sides of the aisle.
It’s an ideal public-private community development tool, but you also don’t have to have a ton of funding to make this happen. And the example that I like to give in my hometown Deferiet New York, it has a population of 400. It’s an old mill town and has lost most of its third places at this point.
But one of the local mayors at one point in time had taken the park and turned it into the place where you went for Friday night movies. And they pulled together a PowerPoint projector and a screen, right? And what it gave folks in that community is this feeling of connectedness, belonging, identity.
It gave us a space to connect with each other again. And there’s ways, even on a limited budget, that local leaders can have a meaningful impact on the residents of their communities.
BROOKS: Alright Danielle Rhubart, assistant professor of biobehavioral health and Demography at Penn State University.
Thanks so much for your time today for starting us off on what I think is a really important conversation. So many thanks. We really appreciate it.
RHUBART: Thank you for having me.
BROOKS: And let me introduce Jorge González-Hermoso. He’s a research associate at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. And Jorge, good to have you.
JORGE GONZÁLEZ-HERMOSO: Thank you for having me, Anthony.
BROOKS: Also with us is Danielle Littman, assistant professor at the University of Utah College of Social Work. Danielle, great to have you as well.
DANIELLE LITTMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKS: And I’d love to start off asking you both the first question I asked the other Danielle at the start of the show.
Your third place, Danielle, your favorite third place.
LITTMAN: Yeah, so I just moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. And I have to say that in just the past couple of weeks, I recently went to the local public library downtown for the first time, got my library card, and of course this is my research. And so it made me very excited to get to contribute to supporting a third place in my community.
But I also found myself getting emotional seeing all of the different kinds of people that were there and all the different kinds of resources that were there. It really affirmed my belief in and value for third places in my own community.
BROOKS: Nice. Jorge, what about you?
GONZÁLEZ-HERMOSO: So, I am in Washington, D.C. and I live very close to a dog park, and it is my favorite third place. Not only because I love dogs and it’s just fun to see them play.
But I feel like everybody who goes there is very much open to meeting new people to conversation. You can come over and talk to them and say hi. Everybody is pretty much in the mood to engage with you, which doesn’t happen in every third place. But dog parks have something special.
BROOKS: They really do. The special thing that dog parks have are dogs who can break down that initial social awkwardness between people who don’t know each other.
BROOKS: I love that about dog parks. Jorge, let me stick with you because you have data that tells us something about what happened to third place communities during the pandemic.
We know that lots of places had to shut down because of COVID. What did you find? What does your data tell you?
GONZÁLEZ-HERMOSO: Yeah, so I think we all, just from our own experiences and anecdotes. We know that a lot of places in our communities, in our neighborhoods unfortunately closed. And I looked at the data and using Yelp data, by September of 2020, so we were still pretty much in the midst of the pandemic.
Yelp had registered 160,000 business closures. And so these are businesses that have storefronts, these are brick and mortar businesses, right? Can serve as third places. But the more worrisome data point here is that 60% of those closures were permanent.
So they were not just waiting, trying to weather the storm. They were gone. And this is after we had so many efforts, public policy efforts, to keep these businesses afloat. The Paycheck Protection Program, for example, at the federal level, but also other state and local policies that were trying to keep a lot of these businesses alive.
BROOKS: And what do we know, and I’ll come to you Danielle for this, about the implications of this and of these widespread closures of third places. Is it associated with poor physical and mental health? For example, what do we know about the consequences of this? Oh, sorry. Go ahead. You go ahead Jorge, and then to you Danielle.
GONZÁLEZ-HERMOSO: I’m sorry. Yes, so we’ve talked already about all the benefits of these third places in terms of all different types of outcomes. Specifically with these closures, there are very immediate negative effects with vacant storefronts. They reduce foot traffic.
People don’t want to visit those commercial corridors. If a lot of the businesses there are closed anyway it could, facilitate or make it easier to perhaps the buildup of trash. You have other types of issues, criminal activity, perhaps, in some cases. So you have these very immediate effects as a place that happens when you get all of these closures. At this rate, obviously there are other kinds of negative benefits in terms of just economic impact, right?
So there were people who had jobs here, these were entrepreneurs that perhaps put all their savings into putting these businesses together. And there’s also impact to the communities that were relying on some of these services or perhaps on the amenities. And to some extent, there was even a sense of identity that these businesses provided to community residents that they no longer have.
BROOKS: Sure. And Danielle the same question to you. Do we know something about how this is associated with poor, physical and mental health among people who have suddenly, or over time, I guess over the course of the pandemic, have less access to third places.
LITTMAN: Absolutely. So one thing I’ll say is that when these third places are closing, these losses are going to be felt most among those who are socially and economically marginalized in our society, because a lot of those folks are relying on third places as buffers against stress and isolation and loneliness. But also for access to basic resources. So when we think about many of the third places in our own communities like the library that I mentioned, these are third places that are providing basic resources to folks.
And if somebody doesn’t have access to that in other places in their lives, that is going to be very differentially felt, versus somebody who can get that in their first and second place set. So that I think is really important to acknowledge here.
BROOKS: We mentioned Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” at the top of the show.
And this was written back in 2000. And it feels like we’ve been heading in this direction for a long time, even before the pandemic, Danielle. Is that the case? Did the pandemic sort of accelerate this concern and about the loss of third places?
LITTMAN: Yes. And it’s interesting to note, too, that Finley and colleagues did some research on the National Establishment Time-Series data. And they did confirm that the overall number of third places are declining in American society. But the third places that are experiencing the most closures are more of those commercial settings, personal settings like barbershops, laundromats, bookstores, music stores.
But we also see that certain third places like libraries, parks, civic social settings, are actually experiencing an increase during this time. And this suggests that these public and community vs. commercial third places are pretty essential in meeting the needs of our community members in our present social landscape.
BROOKS: And I’m wondering if this is all, and Jorge I’ll come to you for this, if this sort of challenge of fewer third places accelerated during the pandemic, if this has given us an opportunity to reimagine the third place, maybe.
GONZÁLEZ-HERMOSO: Yeah, totally. So yeah, I think there are, as I mentioned, different types of third places.
I focus mostly on these more geared towards businesses, commercial corridors. And we definitely saw a huge impact there as it has been mentioned. I just wanted to leave us with a little bit more of a positive note that despite all of these closures, we’ve also seen, since 2021, a record in the rate of new business formation in the U.S>
So we are creating new businesses at a rate that we hadn’t seen in years. Obviously, these not necessarily will become third places cause they don’t necessarily have to be brick and mortar places. But it’s definitely a promising data point that I just wanted to include for us.
And going back to your question, definitely the pandemic showed us the importance, for example, of parks. Because, as public spaces we all wanted to be outdoors. For me personally, now picnics at the part was not a thing that I used to do. And now me and my friends, we do it very often and it’s very nice.
And there’s definitely other a lot of open-ended questions here and with other very interesting trends. Because we also start seeing, for example, the first and the second place starting to merge, right? We’re all working from home. And so I wonder if that also is going to provide a new, we’re going to start seeing the third place differently.
We are going to think, now there’s only going to be two places and we really need to take, pay attention to the second place. Now this being the public space where we come together. So yeah, the pandemic really brought a lot of changes, and it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens in the coming years.
BROOKS: Really interesting. I’m interested that you focus on business corridors, and I want to ask you both about this and I’ll stick with you for this first question Jorge, and that is some of these third places cost money to enter, whether they’re gyms or whether they’re businesses, even, bars and restaurants.
How important though, is it that some third places be free with minimal barriers to entry? Because clearly not everybody can pay that fee or the cost of entering some of these places
GONZÁLEZ-HERMOSO: It is very important, and I really appreciate that you bring it up. Because one of the special features and one of the benefits of the third places and going back to Oldenberg who first introduced a term, is that they can be equalizing places or democratizing places.
And this is very important to really get some of the benefits that the third places have in terms of creating social capital, developing common values among people, developing trust when we interact constantly with each other, developing a civil culture and having solidarity and empathy towards each other.
All of these things will not happen as much if there is a fee or a subscription or some type of economic barrier to be able to access the third place. And I think that is particularly troublesome or worrisome in the United States where I feel like we’ve relied a lot on these more commercial focused third places, like the mall and commercial corridors. And in other places, I speak from my personal experience here.
I grew up in Mexico and the urban design, it follows very much these old European cities where you always, not only at the city level, but at the neighborhood level, you always have some form of main plaza that is usually in front of the neighborhood church.
And everybody knows that this is the place where we come as a community. If we need to engage with others in our neighborhoods, this is the place. And if we have, if we are depending on businesses and paying a price, then you don’t really have such a good third place.
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