Seeing friends in person is a constant struggle for Natalie, 24, who didn’t want us to use her last name. It’s difficult to find the money to visit friends out of town and to find suitable social spaces to be in locally. These spaces, which are not our homes and not our workplaces, are also known as third places and serve an important sociological purpose that is fundamental for our wellbeing.
“Distance, coupled with a lack of affordable social spaces to hang out has been a breeding ground for resentments,” she explains. Seeing her friends has become expensive for many reasons: her disposable income has been eaten into by rising rents, the cost of living crisis, and cost of travel, and all of this uses up time and energy. This is exacerbated by travel in particular, as she has hidden disabilities — Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — which cause extreme fatigue.
Natalie is far from alone when it comes to finding accessible and cheap places to hang out. In fact, the lack of these third places is having serious psychological and social consequences. As Natalie puts it, “friendships should be about love, care, and community, but structural barriers hinder our ability to show up for one another."
If where you live is the first place and where you work or study is the second place, then the third place, as Tony Matthews, senior lecturer on urban planning at the University of Griffith explains, is “intentional social spaces that anybody would visit”. That means anything from a public library to a swimming pool, a public park, café, or farmers’ market. “Anywhere there's an intention towards a social experience that is not necessarily a commercial proposition,” he tells Refinery29.
"Third place" was first coined in 1989 by Ray Oldenberg, an urban sociologist, who identified these spaces as “homes away from home where unrelated people relate”. Karen Christenson, who is working on an update of Oldenberg’s work, explains that people have worried about losing third places for as long as the term has existed. But the problems that arise without them are now becoming more acute.
“I think that the terrible problem we see with loneliness and the mental health issues that people face often come from just not having enough of the steady casual support that people got from third places,” she tells Refinery29. Data from the federal government's Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has found that 25 per cent of females aged 15-24 are experiencing loneliness (that’s half a million more people than in the first year of the pandemic). It may seem self-evident, but if we cannot have shared spaces in which to connect, friendships will fracture and drift apart and loneliness, already a critical problem in Western society, will continue to proliferate.
Christenson says that she regularly speaks to people who can see the appeal and benefit of third places in her work. So why aren’t they found everywhere? One factor is a lack of funding for currently existing spaces, which is an issue globally. Last year the Guardian found that local authorities in England are spending nearly £330 million less a year on parks and open spaces than they were a decade ago, leading to deterioration and lack of work done to make these spaces hospitable.
Third places are increasingly deprioritised, particularly in cities (though institutions like the University of New South Wales are pushing for this to change). “If you look at very high-density cities, oftentimes so much density means a lot of other things get squeezed out, including public space,” Matthews explains. He attributes this to the idea that crowding more and more people into cities is a good thing. “There's more people to be housed and there's a pressure to build more apartment towers — we need as much land as we can possibly get and therefore what we often sacrifice is public space.” Any space that does not become housing is likely to be commercialised, either as offices or retail units that will discourage people from loitering (unless they are spending money).
In fact, third places are still freely accessible — if you can afford them. While expensive third places continue to exist (like members’ only golf clubs or gyms), social spaces with low- to no-barrier to entry are few and far between. For the third places that may have once been affordable like cafes, pubs, and cinemas, there was already an immense challenge in surviving the COVID lockdowns. Those that did are now navigating rising costs of keeping the doors open due to the cost of living crisis. That, in turn, means the prices for consumers must go up too, pushing out those who can’t afford to spend time there.
As shown by issues around access and the rise in gender policing around bathrooms, some current third places are either inadvertently or explicitly hostile to people. Martha Summers, a queer artist and architect who worked on the proof of concept for London’s first queer-centred third place, the London LGBTQ+ centre, explains how true inclusion is not always considered in the design process. “Architects are familiar with the idea of access in architecture when it comes to physical improvements like ramps, etc (though not enough is done)," she tells Refinery29. "However, they are often ignorant of the atmospheres they create in their designs and how these inhibit access by perhaps feeling intimidating, alienating, or simply unwelcoming to diverse groups of people.” And if you do not feel like you can fully inhabit the space, then the third place loses a core piece of its function. “People can't be creative in precious, over-designed spaces," Summers says. "You need to feel like you belong there, and that you can linger there for as long as you like.”
And across the board, access to third places is determined by whether you are spending. Even staying for long periods (especially without buying) in third places with a retail element is increasingly discouraged — whether by means of it costing more to dine in than eat out, having bathrooms that are listed as "for customers only", or in the U.S., a deliberate reduction in seating in more affordable chains.
“There's less seating now in the inexpensive places like Starbucks or McDonald's or Costa Coffee,” says Christenson, referring to research focusing on U.S. establishments. “Older people and teenagers and people who don't have a lot of money use these fast food chain places because they can hang out there, and that's becoming less common.”
It boils down to the fact that in public spaces (both inside and outside), it is harder for people to linger, which disproportionately affects people with disabilities, lower incomes, or from communities that are overly policed. Even if those people are spending money, they have to spend far more than they used to thanks to the cost of living crisis.
The knock-on effect on people’s social lives and wellbeing is substantial for everyone, but particularly people from those communities. Lydia Wilkins, 24, has access needs around mobility, as well as managing balance and sensory issues. “My friendships are spread out far away from me, in pockets," she tells Refinery29. “It drains my energy levels, leaves me extremely tired, and inordinate time is spent planning any social time. I feel lonely a lot.”
As for the claims that the internet could act as a substitute third place, that is undermined by the fact that social media sites too are no longer geared towards more localised shared experiences but towards exponential growth and commercial integration. Community spaces online, as in public life, have been squeezed out in favour of broad, bland appeal and commercial opportunity. “None of these platforms are [actually] optimised anymore to be able to connect with people,” says Kate Lindsay, an internet culture writer. Instead of being able to see your friends’ posts, everything you see is algorithmically determined. And any efforts to bring back that shared space are clearly deprioritised. “Meta can cover their bases by saying they brought the chronological feed back, it's just a separate tab, but it's very hidden and doesn't stick once you close the app. It's like they want you using the algorithm, creating for the algorithm, creating for strangers and reach," she says.
An ideal third place is somewhere with mutually accepted and agreed-upon rules. You are free to come and go, but while there, you have some sort of shared prerogative. Whether that is respecting people’s social distancing preferences, not berating others for how they use the space, or understanding that an area is only for children and carers during certain hours. This is how you build out the kind of spaces where friends can actually bond with each other without stress or major expense. The cycle of people feeling uncomfortable about entering those spaces or existing in them fully also needs to be broken and the space should be turned into one where people can form meaningful connections based on mutual interests, explains Brendan Burchell, professor of social sciences at Cambridge University. “In different cultures, there are places with outdoor chess boards, for example, where you can just go and play chess,” he says. “But in the U.K., I think lots of our spaces don't have that meaning. If you go to those spaces as a single, possibly lonely person, it might make you more lonely rather than less lonely.”
Third places in some ways are a simple solution to many problems, and creating and sustaining them means seeing the need for them as a public health problem, both online and off.
As Matthews puts it: “You can ignore the issue of loneliness and you can ignore the antidote via the built environment of creating third places. But you're basically ignoring a burgeoning, population-level health problem that's getting worse year on year, especially over the last 10 to 20 years in the wealthier economies. In a sense, it's an investment in not just the immediate urban domain, but long-term in public health.”
But more than that, it means rejecting the way that we are being pushed apart and taking active steps to make our current spaces more welcoming for everyone. This means pressuring public bodies to improve accessibility and enforce safety measures. It also means rejecting transphobic whistleblowing around gendered toilets and actively supporting trans people if they are harassed. And, importantly, it means spending time and energy within the scant community spaces you already have instead of waiting for the perfect place to pop up. Pushing for more social spaces requires using those places that exist, and helping to create environments that make everyone feel comfortable.
This is a scary proposition for our increasingly atomised society but a vital one. If these places are not going to be provided we need to carve out what we can in what currently exists. Because without that effort, we’re just letting ourselves be driven apart.