August 2, 2013

Third Places

Share With Friends

Outside of home and work, is there a place where you have frequent social interaction and even a bit of community? Maybe your church or a local coffee shop?


For me, one such spot is a small bakery not far from my home. After all these years, I’m pretty sure we’ve both contributed to the physical growth of the other.

Stonemill Bakery is my Cheers, the place where everybody knows my name. And they’re always glad I came. OK, I am certain some of you know nothing of Cheers, but it was an early forerunner of many of our favorite recent shows on television. It was set in a bar in Boston where a group of locals would convene daily to relax, commiserate, and journey through life together. Over its 11 seasons, the show earned 28 Emmy Awards and held a then-record 117 nominations. My premise is that we all need a Cheers.

Third Places

In his 2001 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes the disintegration of social structures in American culture (church, PTA, etc.).

We’re so individualistic, even our social activities turn into individual events.

A few years earlier, Ray Oldenburg wrote The Great Good Place, tackling the same issue as Putnam but looking at one particular piece of good news:  the “third place.” Your first place is your home; your second place is your work. Your third places are your regular haunts.

Think of your neighborhood coffee shop or bar. The church, the farmer’s market, the park, the hair salon.

Every television sitcom has one of these places. As I mentioned, those of a certain “maturity” will cite Cheers as the best example.  People could walk in, feel at home, and have a shared history. Like in this clip.


For a more recent example, think about the corner deli in Seinfeld, or check out this clip of the comic store crowd in The Big Bang Theory.


Oldenburg identifies eight qualities of a third place:

  • Neutral ground
  • Leveler
  • Conversation is the main activity
  • Accessibility and accommodation
  • The regulars
  • A low profile
  • The mood is playful
  • A home away from home


He also mentions “bonuses,” such as food or drink, within walking distance, and a place where you have both old and new friends.

You get the idea. Who doesn’t want a place like this?

A Model Place

A couple of months ago, I led a conversation at the TOMS Shoes flagship store in Venice, California, on the topic of third place. The conversation was in conjunction with the Q Conference, and Gabe Lyons and his team chose the location on purpose because the TOMS store is a model of a third place.

Look at what TOMS put on their corporate blog about the new store and then look at the flagship store blog here.

Notice their language: “Born in Venice. Here to stay.” “If you’re in the neighborhood, come on by our first TOMS store to grab shoes, eyewear, a coffee, a baked good, and/or a friendly ‘what’s up.’”

They’re defining themselves as a third place—a local place where community happens.

But they take it a step farther—they host game nights and movie nights, promote corporate giving and donate books at toddler time. They collaborate with other organizations and encourage patrons to collaborate with each other. That’s a third place.

It feels fresh, but this concept is an old one.  Check out Steven Johnson’s TED talk on “Where good ideas come from.” Ideas don’t come out of individual minds; they come out of social environments and from places like the old English pubs.

That’s a picture of third place. Community interaction that looks outward as well as inward.

So What?


So why do you need a third place? And how do you get one? And why should I support the idea of third places?

Let me answer the “why” questions first.

Third places reinforce an organic integration of humanity and common good and a mature integration of faith and everyday life. It’s a place where we can ask these questions intelligently, like a lab classroom where we’re having hands-on study. As a man of faith, it gives me a venue to think about the gospel more holistically.

Third places are where community life happens. It’s where you can love your neighbor and collaborate on ideas where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

As for how to create a third place, here are my three tips:

  • Remember that interior ambiance is as significant as geographic location: The right spot in town isn’t magic. You’ve got to consider where people will sit, music in the background, creative elements (whiteboard walls, checkerboards, etc.).
  • Find a diverse tribe:  You need the regulars, but you don’t want to be pigeonholed as “the place where the artists hang out” or “the Christian place.”
  • Make it cash flow:  It takes awhile to build up a reputation as a third place in a community, so you’ve got to have the finances to last long enough to weather that initial time. You can’t be a coffee shop where everybody hangs out but nobody buys coffee.


If you own a building, consider converting some of it into a third place. If you lead a company, push people to utilize third places. If you believe in your neighborhood, become vocal about birthing a third place. If your community already has a third place, lean in with your support and resources.

Our world lives and breathes collaboration. I could cite a hundred examples of it.  The idea seeds that are growing into strong fruit-bearing trees come from great collaboration.

Third places are simply good soil for these seeds. And good soil makes more difference than you might think.


Photo by Sue Cline


Share With Friends