The term ‘third place’ was coined in the 1980s by the American sociologist, Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg’s idea was that your home is your primary place whereas school or work are your secondary ones. These places were for socialising, but their main function was to assist your life and productivity. For this reason, Oldenburg proposed that we have another space, known as a third place, where we could converse without the pressures of work and home life.

Forty years and one pandemic later, an increasing number of people, from TikTokers to YouTubers, are talking about the importance of having third places.

Third Places in History

Third places can be found in almost all cultures throughout time. Common examples include the street-side cafés of Paris, Roman bathhouses, and town squares. They can even be traced back to the tea houses of the Jin Dynasty, around 300 AD. These places allowed people to share ideas and be innovative. If you’ve ever taken a history lesson in the UK, you probably know about the infamous gunpowder plot, which was planned in 1604 in a London pub. History shows us that third places were essential for exchanging information before the advent of television and social media.

More recently, some of the most iconic third places have been cafés and pubs. The fictional Central Perk from the popular ’90s TV series ‘Friends,’ is a good example of the chilled atmosphere they offer. But aside from the cafés, pubs, and bars, some less obvious third places include the hairdressers, beauty salons, gyms, parks, and even religious establishments such as churches.

The Downward Spiral

The coronavirus pandemic came at a crucial point for third places. The 2010s saw a significant increase in the number of third places closing, with many establishments being priced out by chains and large corporations. As well as this, the growth of social media and technology made it less necessary for many people to go out and socialise. Popular social networks such as Facebook became the staple new third places and screen time grew steadily.

We know better now. Despite the many benefits of social media, targeted algorithms can immensely restrict and skew our worldview, leading to misinformation and even depression. When all is said and done, an online chat cannot replace proper, in-person conversation.

Then came March 2020; a time when countless independent businesses were globally forced to shut down — in many cases, permanently. By April, almost 4 billion people were in lockdown and couldn’t meet in person. Third spaces became dangerous and redundant, and social media dominated, filling the communication vacuum. Since then, though most of us have returned to pre-Covid life, third places are becoming harder and harder to find. Some would even say, they are actively becoming extinct for a variety of reasons.

In 2021, the average cup of regular coffee was £3.40, Even more outrageously, a cup of tea is now no less than £2. With the cost-of-living crisis and inflation squeezing everyone, young people especially struggle to afford coffee shops, and that means having to say goodbye to a once-regular third place.

Libraries As the New Third Places?

There is currently a big push for libraries to become the new symbol of third places. In theory, they are ideal. Libraries are government-funded buildings that are open to all, with a variety of rooms and activities. Even more significantly, they are free to use. However, something that I and those around me have noticed, is how difficult it can be to gain access to them. Certain libraries, such as the British Library and the Wellcome Trust Library, only allow you to use their facilities if you’re over the age of 18. When it comes to state-funded local ones, these often have strict no-speaking policies even for rooms that are not dedicated to reading or studying. If libraries are to become welcoming third places, it’s time for them to loosen up and remove some of the red tape. Their central purpose should be to help communities grow and educate themselves, by offering people freedom and literary escape. And, everyone should have the right to access them.

With the rise of people working from home in small studio apartments, the importance of having third places is regaining popularity. We need to be able to separate work, home, and leisure to retain structure in our lives. As we watch young people’s mental health decline, protecting and strengthening community bonds becomes more important.

If possible, try to find a third place where you can meet and interact with other people. It could be a bookshop, community centre, park, or shopping centre. It might not seem natural at first, but in time, the benefits of regular social interaction will speak for themselves.

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