Loneliness is a hidden but serious problem in cities worldwide. Urban loneliness is connected to population mobility, declining community participation and growth in single-occupant households. This situation threatens the viability of our cities because it damages the social networks the residents rely on.
One response to these trends involves “Third Places.” These are public or commercial spaces that provide informal opportunities for local people to mix socially on neutral ground.
What are third places?
The concept of third places, developed by Ray Oldenburg, is distinct from first and second places.
- The first place is the private space of the home.
- Second places are where people spend significant time, often formally. These include schools, universities and workplaces.
- Third places in cities include community gardens, libraries, public swimming pools, cafes, men’s sheds, farmers’ markets and dog parks.
How can third places reduce loneliness?
There is a growing understanding of the adverse outcomes and costs associated with loneliness. These include fractured communities, declining trust, stress, depression and disease. This loneliness is neither desirable nor sustainable.
More than a century ago, the sociologist George Simmel observed how mobility disrupts social connection and creates isolation. The urban migrant leaves behind their social ties and often struggles to connect to their new community. This struggle challenges both the migrant and their new neighbours.
Third places can help by creating or enhancing a sense of community on a smaller, more human scale – a relief from the overwhelming sensory experience of a large and unfamiliar city. The village-like feeling of third places can reduce people’s anxieties and make them more comfortable trying a new social experience.
Third-place interactions encourage conversation in a homely atmosphere- Regulars local to the area help with this.
In third places, people are free to come and go without obligation. These places are designed to be accessible, accommodating and inviting for all ages, low-profile, comfortable and conversational. The status and backgrounds of users are primarily irrelevant.
Third places bring people together based on shared spaces, which become more important than individual histories. This environment can reduce the wariness of strangers and create social connections. Third places can lead to more resilient and better-connected communities, building up social capital while lowering cases of loneliness.
Providing quality third places
There are steps that we can take to design and safeguard third places. Local councils and urban planners have essential roles in directing land uses, given this is their primary occupation.
Perhaps the most important thing is understanding the valuable social capital that successful third places offer. Once planners understand the value of third places, they can actively work to support them.
Walkability is an important factor. Ideally, people connect within their local neighbourhoods without needing a car can enable more people to use a place. Third places encourage familiarity through repeated incidental interactions between locals, both regulars and newcomers.
We can design space for third places into neighbourhoods and urban areas, giving sections of parkland to public facilities such as outdoor gym equipment, dog parks or skate parks and at the same time, providing dedicated trading areas for farmers’ markets.
Third places are most effective when they encourage interactions between locals. Providing facilities and activities creates a purpose for interactions and reasons to start chatting.
Local councils can support citizen-led activities such as community gardens and men’s sheds. They can also provide activities such as Tai Chi classes.
Protecting existing third places is as important as providing new ones. For example, a local council may be tempted to allow housing to take over a community garden site. While there may be reasons to support that idea, it should be carefully considered against the loss of social capital and the risk of entrenching social isolation.
Valuing and promoting third places
We live in an age of urban mobility with no historical comparison, and many of us have been strangers in a new city. Loneliness is an unwelcome and growing feature of this urban mobility. Third places offer a valuable and tested model for reducing loneliness by improving the community.
Yet many city dwellers see these spaces but don’t use them. In this sense, perhaps the most significant barrier is our willingness to take the time to seek out and participate in third places. Banishing loneliness could be one of the most important benefits for those who do.