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Third Places

By Liliana Chai and Ariel Lee Feb. 14, 2024 In an age of constant connectivity and hectic lifestyles, a silent epidemic is sweeping across communities, contributing to the decline of “third places.” Ranging from cozy cafes to bustling parks, these once bustling social hubs pulsing with energy are vanishing into a shadow of loneliness.

Kavya Desai Art

The concept of third places was first explored by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book “The Great Good Place.” He described third places as locations outside of home, school and work that promote social interaction. They include, but are not limited to, coffee shops, bars, libraries, bookstores and community centers—both private and public facilities. The most common third places are unassuming, simple and affordable, providing environments where people can freely express themselves. They are also a great way for individuals to meet new people and chat about their interests. Oldenburg mentioned that in an increasingly lonely society, third spaces play a crucial role in helping people build identities and connections. For instance, community members not only get a fresh cut at their local salon or a drink from a bar but also find socioemotional support in conversations with hairstylists and bartenders. For some, third places have become havens where people gather to soak inlively vibes and experience a warm social atmosphere.

“Third spaces like cafes and parks have really helped me feel welcome and secure in my community. A place I love to visit is Memorial Park. Having a park where I can walk and talk with my mom has helped me grow closer to her and brought me joy knowing that I was able to spend time with her,” Freshman Hrishita Diwan said.

Although third places have been recognized for their importance by several communities, they are on the decline in the U.S. According to Business Insider, Americans are working longer hours than decades ago to compensate for wage stagnation, leaving them with less time to hang out with friends. Americans reported spending six and a half hours with friends per week for decades until the period between 2014 and 2019, when the number dropped to four hours per week. In a YouGov poll, the rate of loneliness among young adults rose nearly every year from 1976 to 2019. Loneliness is associated with high health risks like premature death from heart disease, which can be detrimental to individuals’ health.

The shift is also visible in the shows and movies during the different decades. In the ’90s, T.V. shows such as “Friends,” displayed the characters spending a significant amount of time with each other, hanging out in cafes, diners and bars. However, in more recent shows such as “Succession,” most scenes take place in work-related environments. 

A number of factors have contributed to the decline in third spaces. One reason lies in the way American cities reshape the urban landscape to promote higher car usage, with many streets and neighborhoods becoming divided by highways. This has caused isolation while riding in private vehicles instead of walking, biking or using mass transit. The issue supports Oldenburg’s argument that the design of American neighborhoods prevents the establishment of interactive communities. For example, in the 1950s, Los Angeles destroyed three Mexican American neighborhoods to clear the way for the construction of Dodger Stadium. Businesses that served as third places are also becoming cost-prohibitive due to gentrification; wealthy families moving into low-income neighborhoods have attracted pricier amenities that longtime residents are unable to afford, reducing their capacity to hang out at local third places. For example, there may be certain restaurants that are exclusive to wealthy people, keeping those with less money from going there.

While city layouts are a large part of the problem, the pandemic has been attributed by some as a more significant contributor to the dwindling of third places. With everyone isolated at home, opting for online services was the only way to communicate and form new relationships. As a result, online platforms like Instagram, Twitch and TikTok became the new “placeless” third places. Furthermore, as schools transitioned to online platforms, the ability for students to meet face-to-face was severely hindered, further resulting in the loss of social interactions. With online culture gaining popularity in the past few decades, users’ preference to communicate via online platforms has also resulted in a decline of third places. As social media takes over peoples’ lives, people are more likely to scroll on their phones and talk to family and friends online instead of face-to-face. This can have a negative effect, as research conducted by Dr. Narae Lee at Pennsylvania State University has shown that in-person communities demonstrated a better impact on well-being compared to virtual community building.

“Technology like phones has caused a new divide between people and third spaces, and also distracts people from being fully present in their environment. I prefer socializing in person because I find it easier to communicate with other people and I have more fun with my friends rather than just texting them,” Junior Sienna Lee said.

Places where people can hang out still exist despite these continuously changing social dynamics.  For example, shopping malls and food courts can still serve as accessible third spaces, as people do not have to spend money to enjoy a fun time with friends there. Moreover, most malls provide free heating, air conditioning and bathrooms. However, as the retail crisis persists, malls have been dying off in great multitudes, depriving communities of yet another widely used gathering place.

Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democratic Senator, blames the lack of third places in America’s downtowns on the government’s disinvestment. Murphy introduced legislation in 2022 to fight loneliness using national strategies. He proposed that federal agencies boost social infrastructure by setting guidelines to prevent loneliness. Additionally, Murphy wants to utilize funds from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to create vibrant and active downtowns, crucial areas for social development. To combat the mass closures of retail stores, the bill’s tax policy would seek to help small retailers thrive instead of favoring big retailers. Other solutions are also being proposed; for example, some urban planners have received valuable information about how to construct places that nurture social connection from researchers like Tayana Panova, who studies the effects of the environment on mental health. According to Panova, parks should not be stark and barren fields; instead, they should have desirable amenities like shade and water that attract people.

“Having events in third places can build a sense of community, but these events would only work if they are easy to join and news of such an event is being shared with the members of the community,” Senior Ariya Acharya said. 

Third places are a major part of healthy social infrastructure—they build confidence and security while providing stimulation and support. Loneliness is directly correlated with depression and other mental health issues, which makes the proliferation of third places all the more critical.  The fundamentals of society are built upon interaction and socialization, and without an equitable and effective solution, serious repercussions on the mental health of many American communities could take place.


About the Contributors

Liliana Chai staff writer

Liliana Chai is a freshman attending Leland High School and is an artist for the 2023-24 Charger Account. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music, playing piano, sleeping, arts and crafts, and writing poetry. She is looking forward to Journalism and hopes to explore new ideas while collaborating with other people.

Ariel Lee staff writer Ariel Lee is a freshman at Leland High School and is a page writer for her first year in journalism. In her free time, she likes to sleep, do nothing, binge shows (kdramas), and listen to music.

Kavya Desai artist Kavya Desai is a senior at Leland High School and is a new artist for The Charger Account. During her free time, she enjoys sleeping, playing video games, and going for long drives.

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