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The search for the modern “third place.”

August 25, 2012

I have long been fascinated by the role that third places play in our urban lives.
 
For years, I have lamented the fact that the most accessible public places—our community centres, especially and to some extent libraries- are not at all designed as welcoming third places. In fact, their physical environment is usually hostile to the public welcome experience, spontaneous encounters, casual "hanging out", etc. The first thing you usually encounter entering a community centre or neighbourhood house is a front desk behind which an official takes refuge in their encounter with you.
 
I went into the Mt. Pleasant Neighbourhood House for the first time last week and took note of my first impression. As I passed through the entry doors, I was met with a counter just off to my right, a corridor ahead with blank walls for the first couple of meters and a sign that said "Please register when entering". I deliberately looked for the lounge chairs, bistro tables, or any seating area close to the entrance. There, of course, were none.
 
On the other hand, when I walk into a private third place, I usually first walk through a seating area (like in a Starbucks) and the area where I encounter staff behind a counter is usually on the far side away from the more informal entry area. In fact, I know that Starbucks have monitors who study how people enter, flow through, sit, encounter staff, place orders, buy product, etc. to ensure that they design these places so that people feel as though they want to be in them. A Vancouver market research company has pioneered technical methodology to assist Starbucks in this market research activity.
 
I spend a lot of time in third places—mainly coffee shops/coffee lounges—working, although I do have an office. I simply like the social atmosphere and find the environment creatively productive. I also study these places, the way they are designed and the way people interact with them. I usually visit independent local places, not chains like Starbucks. They usually better reflect the local culture and try to respond to what people are looking for. I say "try" because I have recently had some discussions with the owners/operators of such places, many of whom are struggling with the change in social/cultural dynamic, customs, work habits, the change in the coffee shop business etc.  They are trying to find ways of making money.
 
My friend who owns three locally branded outlets he developed in Vancouver said to me the other day he has no idea how he can make money giving away free office space when his intention was to make money selling coffee. He related to me numerous stories about "laptop hobos" (so-called customers) occupying space in his shops for hours on end, using free WiFi, his washroom and its supplies, after buying one $3.50 coffee over a 4-hour period.
 
The two or three local coffee shops in Steveston—the suburban community where I live and only spend some of my time—close early in the evening probably because of this challenge. The Waves in Steveston, which is the only shop open past 9m is packed EVERY evening right up until its mid-night closing. People of all ages are there—reading, playing backgammon, talking, working on laptops, studying at a common table. etc. I would say two hundred people pass through and gather in the place each evening. Meanwhile, the Steveston Community Centre, a block away, which has no such space, closes around 7pm. It, by the way, has a counter at the front entry and a bunch of activity rooms where organized programs take place. If you are not part of one of those activities, you don't feel welcome in the space. The kids who can't afford a drink at Waves hang outside at the 7-11 or in the park in the dark.
 
I was working on a large condo project a couple of years ago in a Vancouver neighbourhood. I challenged the developer and the project architects to consider replacing the typical condo amenity space with a "third place" — designed as I described it as a cross between a Starbucks, a 1st class airline lounge and a kids' rec room. My idea was to encourage telecommuters who would live in the condo building to work "from home" but have access to offices services, meeting space, etc., provide social space for building occupants to gather informally and at the same time welcome the wider community into it by selling coffee and allowing those people to interact as
well. It never went anywhere because I don't believe the developer understood it and couldn't figure out how to market it.
 
We need to find a way of providing these "third places" that can somehow support themselves and be welcoming places. This is a fascinating topic. I'm glad SFU Public Square is trying to tackle a part of it.

Bob Ransford, Senior Consultant, COUNTERPOINT Communications is a communications and urban design specialist with over 24 years of experience who focuses on complex urban development and land-use challenges involving the public, governments and other stakeholders.

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