When Being Third Place Is a Good Thing

An outdoor cafe, like this one in Tuscany, Italy, is a great place for local folks to gather daily.

When my dad was still living, I would visit him in my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois. I was amazed at how McDonalds by Interstate 70 had become the hangout for him and his buddies in the morning. I enjoyed going there with him for coffee and seeing his old friends of 70 years or more. Coffee was inexpensive, other food was available and the people he enjoyed would be there almost every day. The staff at McDonalds let folks linger as long as they wished and they stayed for hours at times. The hangout used to be a local café called Henry’s, but that was torn down to build another fast food outlet. Personally, I liked Henry’s better but the key ingredients for the Third Place are where people congregate, whether I care for the ambience or not. McDonalds had the right location with

These streetside benches in San Quirico, Italy, serve well for neighbors to have a chat daily, while watching their children play soccer.

the essential ingredients, kind of like Floyd’s Barber Shop in Mayberry.

The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg (1989, 1991) suggests that “third places” are important in creating a community’s sense of place. They are hangouts of choice for locals. The home and business take the first two places, but many of us have favorite places we go that feel good due to their familiarity and social environment. Coffee shops, beauty shops, plazas and many other unique places can become near and dear to the hearts of local people. Oldenburg suggests that third places share these requisite traits:

▪   They are free or inexpensive.

▪   Food and drink, while not essential, are important.

▪   They are highly accessible, within walking distance for many.

▪   They have regulars – those who habitually congregate there.

▪   They are welcoming and comfortable.

▪   Both new friends and old should be found there.

The fishing deck at the Nature Center of Pueblo was easy access for kids and seniors and had picnic tables for folks to sit and watch or visit.

When I ran a nature center in Pueblo, Colorado, it had its regulars, folks who came to our waterfront each day on the Arkansas River, to sit on a bench or fish or chat at a picnic table. I was pleasantly surprised when we built a restaurant and it became even more important as a place for business lunches, coffee chats, and evening gatherings with nachos and beer. A restaurant is hard work and financially complicated, whether you run it or put it out on a contract. If I could go back in time, I would have built a very nice coffee and tea shop with snack foods. They make great “third places” or “third spaces” as some urban planners call them. We had the natural beauty that people wanted as a backdrop to their special place to relax. The beverage and food filled in that Maslowian basic need.

Tuscany in Italy and many other European communities have very popular plazas and outdoor cafes that serve as the Third Place. Sometimes it is just as simple as convenient places to sit in scenic spots convenient to local people.

Any community organization has its value as an attraction. You may operate a local destination for recreation or education, but are you the third place for people? Does your site have the kind of amenities that make it the place to go every morning or every evening or hang out on weekends? Member organizations often hope for this, but they sometimes lack that unique combination of qualities that makes it happen.

This seating area in the Natural History Museum at Colorado University is one of many developed as a Third Space for students to hangout, study and have a cup of coffee surrounded by interesting items from the museum collection.

I once visited a community that was building a bike trail system and doing major cleanup of molybdenum tailings. The downtown café that served as the “Third Place” for city councilmen, county commissioners and business people was used as the place to put up all of the concept drawings for the trails and amenities. They knew they had that special place locals loved, so they used it to increase local knowledge of their big plans. It seemed to work well and the café owner liked how the planning meetings and posted plan documents added to the attraction.

In bigger cities there are many such locations, some commercial businesses, some natural areas of great beauty, and some nonprofit centers with the right stuff. In some cases, the phenomenon occurs without any noticeable effort on the part of the host location. You may not be able to insure your place has that kind of appeal but you can plan to provide all the physical attributes that might help make

Tables at the museum in Boulder served as a great place for students to work on a group project, have a small meeting or just sit and chat while studying.

it happen. The Colorado University Natural History Museum deliberately created an “exhibit area” in their basement level that encouraged use as a third space by students and families. Once a few people had tried it, word got out, and the success of this exhibit has been measured by how people use it as a third place. It included free coffee and hot chocolate, comfortable seating, work tables, reading nooks, and constantly changing details in items being exhibited. By spending more effort on making a comfortable space and less on what facts could be recited after a visit, the museum increased overall attendance, exposing more students and families to natural history topics and piquing their interest for deeper involvement.

The museum also created nooks where parents and their kids could sit together and read a book.

People who value your space as their Third Place will be there when you need them as political advocates, donors or volunteers. They want to insure your organization survives and thrives because you are a part of their daily life and so have a place in their hearts.

If you need help in planning how to become that Third Place for your constituents, we would like to help. Let us know of your interest with a phone call or email.

–Tim Merriman

An Art Museum and So Much More

On a recent trip to Japan, we had the great fortune to visit the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum in the Yamanashi region near Mount Fuji. We had been out for a drive to enjoy the fall colors but when we turned up the road toward the museum parking area, everyone in the car gasped at the stunning scenery up the drive. Japanese maples, clothed in bright red leaves, lined the drive in such brilliance that it almost seemed unreal. If you were looking for a scene to illustrate the word “breathtaking,” this would be it.

The magic continued on entering the museum grounds. Like most Shinto shrines, a gate marks the entrance through which all must pass. At this museum, passing through the gate puts you directly into a natural forest setting with a stream and fern-filled grottoes lining the pathway to the building. Sculptures that double as seating provide places to sit and absorb the calm of the forest around you. Arriving at the museum door is not the jarring contrast often seen when architects build monuments to their own sense of style. Instead, the building seems to arise out of nature and encompass it, using natural materials that complement the surroundings. Limestone and thousand year old cedar trees form the basic structure of the building and walkways around it.

Inside, the facility contains a unique space in which to view a video about the life and work of the artist. Though I’m not usually a fan of videos in interpretive settings, this one intrigued me for the entire twenty minutes duration and helped me to better understand the art and the artist. Itchiku devoted his life to rediscovering and enhancing the ancient art of tsujigahana, a technique of tie-dying silk to produce subtle effects using color and texture. His work is nothing short of astounding. It is wearable textile art at its best, blending natural scenes evoking the landscapes of Japan with the grace and beauty of traditional kimono. The display inside the main room of the museum changes seasonally, but always features only Itchiku’s work. His vision for the kimono and the museum itself are what drove his designs and you can see his passion for the process and for the natural world in every nuance of both.

The museum includes a café and a tearoom, each of which is situated to take advantage of dramatic, yet serene natural views. The grounds include winding paths through the forest leading around and through streams, ponds, and a cave shrine. Walking about the museum and grounds, you have little sense of whether you are inside or outside. It’s a masterful expression of a central theme, reminding us that nature is both around us and within us – quieting the spirit is all that’s needed to feel the connection.

From a technical planning standpoint, this is the quintessential example of design balance – where interpretive media, architecture, and the site itself are juxtaposed in perfect harmony. From a tourism viewpoint, this is the only must-see art museum I’ve ever seen.

Exiting the building affords the opportunity to pass through the gift shop where a reminder of the experience can be purchased. For me, the memory of this place will always reside in a blood-red maple leaf, and the cool blues of the sky that surrounds Mount Fuji forever captured on a kimono so beautiful it brings tears to the eyes – reminders that nature lives in all of us, whether we choose to live in harmony with nature or not. The connection is inescapable.

– Lisa Brochu

Fall Festival at the Foot of Mount Fuji

We recently returned from speaking engagements in Korea and a visit with Masa Shintani and his family in Fujinomiya, Japan. Our friends lived in the town of Shibakawa until 2010 when it was incorporated into Fujinomiya, a city of about 130,000. Since 1942 this city has grown from the merging of several very old small towns at the foot of Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san as many refer to this sacred spot.

We were fortunate to be there during the Fall Festival, an annual event that brings about 20 of the distinct communities within the city together in a unique manner. As we walked toward the Shinto Shrine, the Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha, which serves as the center of the event, we encountered the first “dashi,” a kind of heritage float.

Dashis are about 9 feet wide by 12 to 15 feet long and ten to 12 feet high. They are made from wood and roll on steel-rimmed wooden wheels. Elaborate wood carvings adorned the dashi and a team of people dressed in traditional garb push and pull the dashi down the street using ropes and five-inch diameter tree limbs about four feet long for steering. Making turns requires a choreographed effort

Lisa and Masa share a sake toast at the festival.

that involves pivoting the entire dashi atop a wooden platform jack. A front porch on the dashi rises about six feet above the street with three taiko drums mounted on the platform with space behind them for drummers and other musicians. This first one we saw was just making its way toward the shrine. By the end of the day, twenty dashi would be lining the streets.

We walked on to the shrine and found a hundred or more food and game booths on each side of several streets that converge on the shrine. Hundreds of people were there by 11 AM and there would be thousands by sunset. We stopped first to sample the sake in the administrative booth, which makes a donation to the event at the same time. Sake is served in small square cedar boxes, which gives it a distinctive woody flavor and scent.

We stopped first at the shrine to do a traditional prayer. That requires a small donation to the shrine tossed into a wooden altar followed by two bows, two hand claps, make a wish, and one more clap of the hands. We learned that it’s important that the wish be for someone other than yourself, which seemed entirely reasonable.

People gather at the Shinto Shrine to make a prayer.

After enjoying a light street food snack of chicken teriyaki on a stick, French fries, potato sticks, cotton candy and Asahi beer (shared between five people), we had a more substantial lunch of udon noodles and tempura at a local noodle house. It sounds like too much mismatched food and that’s accurate, but we enjoyed it as you would at any fair or festival.

By 4 PM the twenty dashis and their push/pull teams lined up on the streets right in front of the shrine in pairs, facing each other. After a meeting with the judge of their competition each team began beating drums, playing flutes and banging brass cymbals. They each rolled forward towards the other, until the frames of the dashis were almost touching, with musicians hanging off the front, glaring at each other while trying to put their opponents off beat. The battle of the bands continued for about eight minutes. Finally they rolled back 30 or 40 feet to catch their breath and then they charged each other again for another couple of minutes of close competition. This all included lots of enthusiastic noise from the push/pull teams who must be both reckless and careful to push and pull the dashis to get them rolling and then stop them when faces are just inches apart. Finally they rolled back for the judging, conducted by a team of observers, and the head judge announced a winner. Each team competes with all the other teams before the night is done. We witnessed two battles, each with judgments of a tie and expected some disagreements but the decisions seemed to please everyone as the team captains showed their respect to each other and toasted with sake in the center of the street.

Then the bon dancing began. Both teams and their community representatives gathered in long oval circles between the dashis. Music floated out of one of the dashis and they all danced in a coordinated manner with elaborate foot and hand gestures that had obviously been practiced with great care. Older women in matching kimonos would be a part of each line along with the men and women in matching team outfits as well. Children in similar outfits formed an inner circle and did their own variations of the dances.

It was incredibly fun and went on for five hours for three evenings, November 3rd, 4th and 5thwith the dashis being moved between bouts to take on a new foe. I suspect this is all highly coordinated by the festival committee, but it seemed liked slightly organized chaos at times. A gentleman in his 70s

Bon dancing is for people of all ages.

invited me into the bon dance and I gave it a try, proving I cannot learn any new dance in five minutes, but it elicited lots of smiles and handshakes nonetheless. It was fun.

Lisa and I went down a side alley of food services and enjoyed delicious pork stuffed buns with some cold green tea to cap off the evening. The festival was memorable in sights, sounds, smells, tastes and movement. All of our senses were a part of the feast. Our friends were with us through the day and evening so it was a special event in every way.

Traditions like the Fujinomiya Fall Festival are unforgettable, like the Fiesta de San Fermines and running in front of the bulls in Pamplona every July. They define the “brand” of the community and mark the passing seasons. If you get to Japan in November, don’t miss this one. Wear your dancing shoes and don’t eat before you get there. Take a camera. It’s a feast in every way.

– Tim Merriman

Enjoyable or Engaging?

One of the most commonly quoted characteristics of interpretation is “enjoyable.” Sam Ham was one of the first to mention this term as a trait of what he calls the “interpretive approach to communication.” This makes sense to me – after all, if people are in a leisure setting and have chosen to be there, they can just as easily choose not to be there if they are not enjoying the experience. But I believe there is a subtlety that some interpreters may miss if they focus on the usual connotation of the word “enjoyable.” Webster defines it as “giving delight or pleasure” and I’m not sure that’s entirely what Sam Ham and others mean when they use the term related to interpretation.

Certainly, there are topics and places to be interpreted that are not delightful or pleasurable . . . stories of war, genocide, destruction of homes and property by fires or floods caused by human carelessness or natural events are just a few examples of important stories that can or should be interpreted at an appropriate place and time for the appropriate audience. But one would be hard pressed to call immersion in such stories “enjoyable.”

Recently, I’ve spent time in two such places – the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda. These museums have horrific, but important, stories to share. They both do it masterfully. And while I can’t say I enjoyed the experience at either location, I was completely engaged at both places. The stories and the compelling ways in which they were told, using a variety of media that was often simultaneously subtle and dramatically direct, were gripping. I’ve been haunted by both ever since, stimulated to learn more about the circumstances and the people involved. This is interpretation at its finest, engaging the audience in ways that keep the message (in this case, remarkably similar in both places) in the forefront of the minds and hearts of those who go through the interpretive experience.

There’s nothing wrong with using the term “enjoyable,” as long as interpreters and interpretive planners understand that the term encompasses more emotions than pleasure and delight. “Enjoyable” speaks to getting the right side of the brain involved in the experience to provide the necessary context for information to land and stimulate further thought or action. At least, that’s the way I’ve always thought of the term, but I’m aware that for some more literal-minded folks, the use of the term “enjoyable” locks them into feeling they must leave their audiences smiling rather than feeling whatever the audience chooses to feel. I’ve heard planners suggest that there must be a big “wow” factor that involves either an awesome building or some sort of expensive, high-tech media to light people up. Interpreters sometimes turn even the most serious of subjects into a series of slick comments and double-entendres designed to lighten the mood. While these may be the best approaches in some cases, they should not be relied on to substitute for finding more engaging ways to share the substance of great stories.

For that reason, “engaging” is the term we use in our HEART planning model for communities, businesses, and interpretive sites to emphasize the importance of developing appropriate communication strategies that accomplish stated objectives. To learn more about the HEART model and how it can be used to engage people in the stories of your community, business or interpretive site, we hope you’ll enjoy our recently published book, “Put the HEART Back into your Community: Unifying Diverse Interests around a Central Theme.”

– Lisa Brochu