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

2 Responses to “When Being Third Place Is a Good Thing”

  1. Cat Shteynberg Says:

    Hi- I realize that this post is older, but I just came across it via a LinkedIn discussion. I would love to hear more about CU’s Natural History Museum Third Space in terms of statistics to potentially make a case to my own museum’s leadership. How did they measure the success of the project, and what have they found longer term? Thanks for sharing!

  2. Engaging Students At a University Museum | Says:

    […] Center report Campus Art Museums in the 21st Century; A Conversation, suggested by Linda Berghoff, When Being Third Place Is a Good Thing, suggested by Seth Frankel, and The Wallace Foundation’s More Than Just a Party, about the […]


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