Summary: This article delves into the increasing polarisation of today’s society and the vital role of ‘third places’ – social hubs outside of home and work – in bridging these divides. Drawing from both traditional and modern examples, it underscores the importance of these communal spaces in fostering understanding, empathy, and community collaboration.
The world seems increasingly polarised. While social media seems to promise conversations, it often amplifies echo chambers. This lack of understanding has eroded our common foundations, making meaningful dialogue scarce. Added to this, the pandemic has shifted our daily life contexts. While challenges like these aren’t new, digital technology has undoubtedly accelerated them.
Building harmonious, resilient communities
To reduce polarisation, you have to build bridges between people. You have to try and create a solid foundation for them to work from. To do that, you must create respect and ideally trust between them – even for those that strongly disagree. All of this must start with greater understanding between different perspectives, experiences and contexts.
This doesn’t happen overnight, especially when we’re competing with the ever present mobile phone in people’s pockets.
However it can. And third places are the way to make it happen.
The result is groups of people or communities who know more about each other and as a result care for one another. In our society this results in more resilient neighbourhoods who are more likely to try and solve problems that affect the group. This is everything from the life affirming “good morning” in the street, to a greater participation and more diverse representation in local democracy.
Defining third places
A third place is somewhere that isn’t home and isn’t work. They can take many forms, but the most important aspect of them is that you meet people you wouldn’t normally run into in the rest of your life. What usually enables this to happen is that the third place has some form of common activity which is of interest to all.
Ray Oldenburg coined the term in his seminal book The Great Good Place, which looks at the demise of such places in the USA.
Third places host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.
Ray Oldenburg, Celebrating the Third Place
Oldenburg’s characteristics of third places include:
They are neutral ground and people have no obligation to be there.
People can come and go as they please.
There is no importance on an individual’s status in a society. There are no prerequisites or requirements that would prevent acceptance or participation in the third place.
Conversation is the main activity.
They must be open, accommodating and readily accessible to those who occupy them.
They harbour a number of regulars that help give the space its tone, and help set the mood and characteristics of the area. Regulars to third places also attract newcomers, and are there to help someone new to the space feel welcome and accommodated.
They are never snobby or pretentious, and are accepting of all types of individuals, from various different walks of life.
They are a ‘home away from home’ where people gain regeneration by spending time there.
Traditional examples include:
park chess boards
There are also such places in the digital world, although they are often less visible, and hence less accessible, to those that are not part of the community. In video game forums on games such as Fifa or Call of Duty, people are often meeting people they wouldn’t normally, with vastly different experiences whilst focusing around a common activity.
The impact of third places
There are lots of benefits that third places bring to their communities. The overall impact is a more friendly, resilient place to be, but here are some of the specific ways they can do that.
Old and young people learning from each other
How much time do you spend with people who are a different age to you? Other than family members, it’s probably not a lot. When you do, there are so many things that you learn. If someone is older then they’ll have a huge range of perspectives about what is going on in the world – probably having seen much of it before. If they’re younger then there will be changes in technology, society and attitudes which are hugely beneficial to know more about.
Humanising people you disagree with
If you hear something you disagree with, it’s very likely that you’ll dismiss it as stupid or get enraged by the suggestion. This is especially true online. However, if you hear a point of view that you disagree with from a human being called Dave, that you’ve spent time getting to know, then you’re much more likely to engage with the discussion and learn something. This is because you understand, empathise and respect Dave’s perspective even if you disagree with it.
This then transfers to other people even if you don’t know them, as you are able to imagine ‘Dave’ saying it with rather than just an abstract being or concept. All of this increases the likelihood of you engaging, understanding and moving things forward rather than digging into polarised perspectives.
Helping people who need help but can’t ask for it
So many people are too vulnerable to ask for help. This is often described as pride, but usually it’s people not feeling safe enough to expose themselves to others who could use it to their advantage. Third places allow you to observe and understand people over a long period of time. This in turn lets you spot when someone might need help but not want to ask for it.
Third places can also be an important information radiator for ways to help people help themselves. For example, the community pub where people come and sit for hours with a single drink in the winter, might be a great place for details of how they can heat their home for less or how to get government support to do so.
Giving people who are struggling something to do
Often, people who are in a difficult situation want to reconnect with others and find their purpose in life. Third places can provide ways for us all to find activities and relationships that help to explore that which will make them happy.
Giving people an ear to listen to
Sometimes you don’t need to do anything to help someone. You just need to be there for them to explain how they’re feeling. Often the simple act of talking through problems can go some small way to solving them. Doing this in a non-judgemental, informal, unofficial capacity can produce more results than any ‘intervention’ which our systems and societies might try to impose.
So why aren’t there more third places?
In England, the traditional third place has been a pub. As the population of the country has diversified this has given rise to a huge wealth of different third places. In London, as one of the most proudly multicultural places on the planet you have the shisha bars of Edgware Road to the barber shops of Camberwell Green and community-owned pubs such as The Star of Greenwich or Ivy House.
However more and more of these places are being turned into business transactions - many revolving around food rather than conversation. Pubs are a particularly strong example of this where the vast majority focus on eating rather than sitting down next to one another. This is a fundamentally less sociable activity, with people who are eating less likely to chat to those next to and around them.
There is also the effective death of any kind of third place that does not require you to spend money. This closes them off to an increasingly large proportion of society as people have less and less spare cash.
A perfect storm of council budgets reducing, businesses feeling squeezed and people having less themselves, means it’s less and less likely that you’ll spend time somewhere that you might hear something new.
What’s a modern third place and how will they save the world?
There are an increasing number of different third places springing up across the UK. Some of these are deeply informal gatherings and others are highly organised and well resourced. Organisations such as Locality and The Plunkett Foundation support and enable this kind of community venture to thrive.
Public living rooms
A public living room is a concept from the amazing Camerados charity. They are building a network of different spaces that are accessible to all and provide the benefits of a third place in an increasingly diverse set of locations. Each public living room is different, set up by a ‘camerado’ for their community. You’ll find public living rooms all over the place: shops, schools, hospitals, front rooms, online. More and more are appearing all the time. And they want there to be one in every neighbourhood.
Their principles are a fantastically modern interpretation of the essence of third places:
While alcohol will always be a barrier for some people, across the UK pubs have been at the centre of communities for many years. As ‘public houses’ they were the original example of where people could come together in a low-cost environment and meet others in a space that feels safe. As prices increase and the economies of running a pub become harder, more are turning to a volunteer-led model which enables them to make different choices.
If you don’t need to focus on making a profit, then you can prioritise bringing people together rather than selling of food and drinks. This means that you can give the space which pubs naturally have plenty of to community groups, charities and other organisations who often just need somewhere to meet to bring about impact in the community.
The Ivy House in Nunhead has an enormous events programme that brings people together while the Star of Greenwich gives free room hire to any community organisation or neighbourhood group and has affordable kids play classes throughout the week. The Bevy in Brighton is the first community-owned estate pub in the UK. It doesn’t just serve drinks; it acts as a community hub offering meals, hosting events, and running services such as a community kitchen and even a barber shop.
Proper Blokes Club
The Proper Blokes Club, is a nomadic collective focusing on men’s health. Their main aim is to break the stigma of men’s mental health and start talking openly about it.
Exercise has been a proven way to help people with any sort of mental health issues by releasing endorphins that make you feel good about yourself. Walking is free, so makes a great way to start and gets you out in the fresh air.
Shops are naturally more transactional than some of the other third places listed here. However they are still central to many communities, sometimes providing the only interaction for people that they will regularly experience. Based around a common goal, but with plenty of space for conversation they help neighbours meet one another while making their lives easier.
Hinton St. George Shop in Somerset is a community-owned shop that offers groceries, fresh produce, and other essentials. It’s owned and run by the local community, ensuring that residents have access to important goods without having to travel to larger towns or cities.
Community woodlands and gardens
The act of gardening is well understood to be excellent for your physical and mental health. Charities such as the brilliant Thrive have been proving this for years. However more recently communities have begun to understand the benefits to their neighbourhood of having shared plots of land. The excellent Trees for Cities instigate such initiatives across the country within existing and new building schemes since 1993.
Talgarth Mill in Powys, Wales is a community-owned and run former flour mill that’s been restored. It now has a working watermill, gardens, and offers educational tours. Even within London there are examples of communities coming together to look after green spaces such as the Westcombe Woodland Society.
Happy to Chat benches
Leicester has become one of the first places in the UK to design their open spaces as places where people can meet a stranger. The city council’s Happy to Chat initiative aims to tackle social isolation and promote community cohesion by encouraging people to interact with others in a safe, public space.
By sitting on a designated bench – which will be clearly labelled with a colourful Happy to Chat plaque – people can look forward to a quick chat, or even a long conversation, with a friendly passer-by.
“Many people enjoy a stroll in the park on their own, but for those who would like a bit of company, this scheme could help overcome the barriers to starting up a conversation.” – Councillor Sarah Russell, Deputy City Mayor for Health
One of the great things about third places is they’re so easy to set up. You can go the formal route through someone like Camerados, Plunkett or Locality or just start something up yourself. There are countless Facebook groups, meet-ups and other events where people come together to meet one another.
And if you’re ever down in Greenwich, then do pop into the Star for a beer, coffee or board game
Original photography by Paul Scannell Photography