Third Place

I have been reading “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg was a sociologist working in America at the end of the 1980s and this book is very much of that time and that place.

Oldenburg charts, with some distaste, the post-war atomisation of American suburban society and the disappearance of those establishments which facilitated social gatherings. He argues that life became divided between ever more comfortable homes and ever more consuming work leaving less space for community. Oldenburg bemoansthis ‘retreat into privacy’, as he sees it as corrosive to social cohesion.

Out of this analysis Oldenburg brings us a valuable new phrase – the ‘third place’. Simply defined it is not home or work (the first and second places). I suppose nowadays we would need to add the fourth place of social media and video meetings. But back in the eighties the phrase was new and valuable.

Starbucks was a paradigm of the third place. It was not a café. Well, some people did go in get a drink (and perhaps something to eat) and sat down and consumed it. Many though, just went in to get a drink and went out with it. Whilst others sat quietly at one of the tables working away and ordering the occasional coffee to stave off embarrassment or dehydration.

Imagine the response in earlier times if you had gone into either your local greasy spoon or the Ritz and asked for ‘coffee to go’, or you had just sat at a table for hours on end hardly making a purchase.

The concept of the third place is immensely useful in understanding how the modern world works and has become more fluid. Oldenburg was quite Humpty Dumptyish about how he chose to define third places; a third place was what he said it was. He rather chose his examples to fit his arguments and ranged widely over bars, clubs, cafes and bookstores. So I have no qualms in following that tradition and thinking about HasleWorks as a third place for the times we live in. I believe we can use the idea of the third place to help us to think about what factors will contribute to our success.

The area we live in, the jobs we do and the media and social media that we give our attention to all makes the world feel as if it is full only of people like us. Our opportunity to experience diversity (in its widest sense) and to learn from others who do not think exactly like we do is much reduced. A good third place will offer a demographic mix; younger and older people, creative types and accountants, a social levelling. The chance to expand our associations rather than further restrict them is a worthwhile goal; the value of the chance encounter. Bringing together a variety of different people rather than always meeting like-minded people can open up new horizons and help find new solutions to old problems.

A good third place is neutral territory where no-one is necessarily the host, where you can come and go as you please and you can go there alone or in company. And if you do go alone there is always the chance that you will meet someone new and establish a new link. Regulars are an important part of the place; they set the mood and tone (without the need for too many rules), welcome newcomers and make introductions.

A good third place is multifunctional. You can get your head down, your earbuds in and get a lot of work done. You can make new contacts and create cooperations that encourage new things to happen. You can relax quietly or socialise over a coffee. Occasionally there will be organised events to introduce new ideas and create a bit of social learning.

A good third place offers congeniality, civility and novelty; the German concept of Gemütlichkeit springs to mind. Inclusivity, informality and welcome; a place where a variety of people can feel ‘at home’ but which is no-one’s home. A place that is accessible; it is both in its locality and of its locality.

HasleWorks aims to be much more that a useful place to work. If we succeed it will become a place that enriches the people who go there and thereby strengthens the community in which they live.