We are living through perhaps the unhappiest period in half a century, one that offers good reasons to be gloomy. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and America’s political and social disharmony are obvious factors, but for many, unhappiness also stems from not having a “third place” to socialize. The term, coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, author of the seminal book The Great Good Place, refers to social venues other than home and work—local coffeehouses, bars, hair salons, libraries, diners, churches, and the like, the public-private hybrids where communities are built through conversation and conviviality.
These genial places are at risk of becoming another casualty of the coronavirus. New dangers associated with being indoors raise the prospect that third places will remain inaccessible, at least until scientists better understand the transmission of Covid-19 and develop a vaccine. But the social benefits of third places make them too valuable to be forgotten or relegated to irrelevancy.
Third places fulfill the human need for socialization. In exchange for a modest purchase, patrons can stay and talk with one another for as long as they wish, fostering a convivial spirit of relative equality. Economic and social differences fade to the background. Civic engagement grows as citizens discuss the latest news, yet unanimity is not required to create a sense of shared identity. All are bound together by a common activity, grounded in a local setting.
Psychologically, happy times in third places can help instill Burkean attachments to one’s own home and community. At the societal level, third places build social capital in two ways. Regular patrons often develop strong bonds of familiarity, trust, and friendship, forming the foundation for mutual aid. Third places are also forums for introducing people of different occupations and backgrounds, thus expanding personal networks, disseminating new knowledge, and inspiring a sense of neighborhood unity.
A 2017 study that examined the social effects of village pubs in rural Ireland found that they provided a significant social forum. In bustling cities like New York, third places serve as both oases of leisure and hubs of activity, providing a source of “eyes on the street” that improve public safety. Third places help glue together strong communities, enabling human flourishing though social and civic engagement.
Despite this importance for individual and social life, third places are unavailable to many Americans. A 2009 study found that 29 percent of respondents could not think of any place in their community where they could interact with others. Oldenburg identified three culprits for this shortage: high taxes, increasing rents, and excessive regulation, all of which make third places less economically viable. The economies of scale and municipal incentives that gave rise to the big-box store and chain restaurant threaten independent, mom-and-pop operators that cannot operate as cheaply.
But big-box stores and chain restaurants don’t offer the same opportunities to foster social and civic life. Car-based shopping malls are meant for consumerism, not conversation—and they’re rapidly declining, too. Across the United States, McDonald’s locations have become third places, even in urban areas—sometimes to the chagrin of franchise owners. But chain restaurants are by their nature standardized and homogeneous, not reflective of a town’s local character.
Regulations, especially zoning codes, have also diminished the number of third places. Separate-use zoning makes it difficult or impossible to walk from one’s work or home to the local bar, coffee shop, or barber. Driving eliminates the opportunities for serendipity and daily interaction.
Covid-19 is just the latest threat to the ongoing viability of third places. Bars have become among the most likely places to contract coronavirus. Now-ubiquitous video conferencing threatens to accelerate the decline of these physical spaces, but fatiguing video chats and social media are inadequate substitutes for face-to-face interactions. Unlike video chats, third places offer a degree of low-risk randomness—entrants don’t know beforehand who will be present or what will be discussed, but they can open up to one another in a setting in which they feel comfortable.
Social media, by contrast, brings together people connected by ideology, education, or work, but not necessarily by a shared local connection. Algorithms feed users content with which they are already likely to agree and engage, narrowing the range of potential views and topics for discussion. The freewheeling conversations of third places are less susceptible to such predetermined selection. “Virtual” interactions are explicitly less than “real.”
The pandemic presents opportunities to develop new third places. Some longstanding regulations might no longer be necessary. In New York, the ordinarily onerous process to obtain sidewalk café licenses has—like magic—been relaxed through the Open Restaurants program. Al fresco dining should remain a permanent feature during the warmer months; reasonable regulations can encourage proprietors to keep outdoor areas clean and balance the needs of surrounding residents.
Suburban and mid-size city leaders can change zoning ordinances to encourage walkable, mixed-use main streets and town centers. Relaxing minimum parking and setback requirements in local codes would be relatively easy to implement. More ambitious municipalities can adopt a form-based code that regulates building design rather than use, as Buffalo and Hartford did a few years ago. In the wake of urban flight caused by rising crime, dysfunction, and remote work arrangements, suburbs that incorporate vibrant town centers can attract residents who appreciate the cultural and social benefits of city life.
The small joys that make life bearable can easily be forgotten in a crisis. Physical places to socialize are vital for American social, civic, and psychological well-being—especially in a time of angst.