Place Oddity (part 1)

Third Place: what it really is, and why it is important

Once again, the workplace community has hijacked a term, a little curiosity or research clearly being too much trouble, and ensured through its endless repetition that it is now understood to be something else – something shallower, trashier and altogether less interesting. Having been part of a panel debate at 100% Design on Friday talking about “Third Places” – at which only one of the eighty or so attendees admitted to ever having heard of the American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg – this is an attempt to put right the damage.

While there were some loose references to the notion of a “third place” prior to 1989 – First Place being home and the Second Place being the workplace – the term was given its modern meaning by Oldenburg in his seminal work, The Great Good Place. This was followed a decade later by Celebrating the Third Place. His work has significance for our understanding of work and the workplace, but not as the industry presently sees it, as being everywhere that is neither a First or Second Place. Third Place is not a catch-all, a residual collection expressed in being neither of one of two pre-existing phenomena – but has specific qualifying characteristics from which its relevance is derived.

Oldenburg saw Third Places as being “anchors of community” in our “jangled and fragmented” lives, comprising locations including cafes, public houses, restaurants, shops and even street corners. Such places have become ever more heroic in their survival, resisting the erosion of community from urban planners, the internet, high street retail chains (“high volume, fast turnover operations that present an institutional ambience” – do you also recognise your workplace in that description?), an obsession with the car and the resultant routing of highways through town centres, and the commute which replaced the “community hour”, the time between leaving the workplace and being expected home – “the former warmed us to our fellow human beings, the latter conditions us to hate them”.

He identified eight common and essential features of a Third Place, having expanded one to two I make nine:

  • On neutral ground – we have no obligation to be there
  • Leveller – status is irrelevant, and there are no requirements to be met to be there
  • Conversation – the main activity, albeit not the only one
  • Accessible – ease of getting there (without a car)
  • Accommodating – provides for patrons needs, and patrons feel their needs are met
  • Regulars – they set the tone, and bring and attract newcomers
  • Low profile – homely and unassuming, without pretence
  • Mood is playful – witty, frivolous banter is valued
  • Home away from home – a feeling of belonging

The relevance is this. In relation to the three “Places”, two challenges perpetuate:

  1. Considerations of how work has broken out of its Second Place, and is performed in the First and Third; and
  2. The desperate and continuing search for an understanding of how the Second Place can be re-defined in order to have any kind of future at all

If we are able to dispense with a shallow view of the Third Place as being everywhere other then the first two, and instead understand what it is and what it can contribute – in particular in being able to anchor community – we will have an insight into both challenges. We will be able to better identify and support those Third Places that perform such a valuable role, and experience how they can contribute to our working lives – and better able to understand the qualities required of a workplace for it to draw in and motivate the community that might reside there.

Consider the nine characteristics of a Third Place – are they not the most desirable qualities of a workplace? Would you not be tempted to give up your sterile, over-designed, condescendingly-proscribed, over-branded showroom for the warmth, comfort, engagement, motivation and support of Oldenburg’s Third Place?

After over a decade of misusing the term, a little understanding may at last now make a difference. As for the so-called “third places” that aren’t as Oldenburg describes – well, they are just someplace else.

5 thoughts on “Place Oddity (part 1)

  1. Quick comment, Neil. This concept also raises its head in Positive Psychology when we talk about a third place as being somewhere that you can be your best self free from judgement and pressure.

  2. I admire and respect edgy thinking but I also have to live in a world with perhaps a different reality from that inhabited from some of the edgy thinkers I admire and respect.

    Knowing that I trust your judgement (especially about W12), allow me some critical thinking of my own:

    1. ‘The desperate and continuing search for an understanding of how the Second Place can be re-defined in order to have any kind of future at all’. You risk overstating your case. There may be some desperation in your world for finding an alternative to the office but they are still being built, most of us still work in them and I’m prepared to bet that your lifetime and mine will only see evolutionary change. Compared to some of the things that I am ‘desperate’ for in changing the working lives of the people in my organisation, this is not critical.
    2. ‘..are they not the most desirable qualities of a workplace?’ Err, not entirely, no. Most of us are compelled to work and it is not neutral. Status is important (‘though admittedly overstated), and creating a workplace for people within non-driving distance of their home is many, many years in the future.

    I could go on, but won’t. A conversation over a beer for sure.

  3. A most interesting post – Thank you!

    Third Place: and so described the pub, the club and the cafe. I especially like the idea of the interlude – the hour before one is expected home. But I think I can agree with some of Kevin’s remarks. The joy of these places is that there is no obligation to be there, and in being there one is freed for a while of the cares of work and home. If work is in itself a pleasure and a social collective activity then these places will not lose by being workplaces too – and our enjoyment of them will not be diminished. But at times work involves obligation, hierarchy, pressure and even guilt – negative emotions that are out of place in the Third Place. Maybe if we start to use Third Places as Workplaces they will lose their their magic and simply become another kind of Second Place?

  4. Bridget: I agree….’Considerations of how work has broken out of its Second Place, and is performed in the First and Third’ is indeed the issue, and is significant in that the third place in Oldenburg’s view is not somewhere to work, but a place to talk and share ideas. Nothing to do with email and ipad really. In fact no network access is a prerequisite for a successful Third Place. So we cannot give up our workplace for a third Place, but make our workplace share some characteristics of the Third Place.

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