Third places, as defined by Ray Oldenburg in his 1999 book The Great Good Place (and its follow-up called Celebrating the Third Place), are neutral territory; public places where people gather, exchange ideas and have a good time. Third places, writes Oldenburg, "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work." Such places, he argues, are crucial for building community vitality, democracy and civil society. In my own less lofty terms, third places promote the types of interactions that have the potential to sprout friendships and meaningful social relationships.
According to the National Institutes of Health, there is growing evidence showing that social networks and community involvement, the building blocks of social wellness, have positive health consequences. People who are socially engaged with others and actively involved in their communities tend to live longer and be healthier physically and mentally.
So clearly, there’s a need to create structures to enhance social wellness. Enter third places, where people can regularly socialize in unprogrammed and informal ways. Those places might be community gardens and parks, neighborhood pubs, or even the gym. Whatever form they take, third places should serve as forums for social interaction. The most popular third places tend to be easy to get to, either close to home (your first place) or to work (your second place). The quality of propinquity encourages both spontaneity and regularity.
Prior to the pandemic, many lifestyle hotels located in residential neighborhoods were trying to become third places by opening up their lobbies to serve as community living rooms or informal co-working spaces. During the past year, many hotels became third places of sorts for the local business community, often opening their doors, and their kitchens, to businesses, including restaurants, gyms and barber shops, displaced by the pandemic.
In general, the best known “third place” is Starbucks. The ubiquitous coffee chain co-opted the concept several years back. But the thing is, Starbucks is really not a third place. The key to being an authentic third place is social interaction. Even pre-COVID, when was the last time you saw strangers socializing at Starbucks? It’s a rarity. Most patrons are sipping their lattes while
ensconced in their own little worlds, typing away at keyboards while further cutting themselves off from the world with their earbuds.
This scene is diametrically opposed to the social construct of a third space. Alone together does not cut it. A true third place encourages informal conversation and shared experiences on a frequent basis, thereby building a sense of social cohesion. After all, it is only by repetition that we build up relationships.
That repetition means that creating spaces where people habitually come to get together offers new opportunities for return on investment (ROI). For example, add a third place to a shopping center, and you have increased foot traffic, which in turn provides surrounding retail outlets access to new consumers. A third-place within a hotel develops new revenue streams for food and beverage offerings. Adding the social wellness component of a third space to a real estate development can help drive up housing prices. Having a third place for office workers can lead to happier people and increased productivity.
Obviously, investors and developers need to ensure that both existing and yet-to-be-built properties make the best use of space and operating dollars to yield the greatest return on investment. At the same time, though, developers who can include spaces impacting the wellbeing of the communities they serve may end up triggering an intangible, yet valuable contributor to the bottom line.
About the author: Laura Powell, VP Wellness Real Estate
Laura Powell serves as RLA Global’s VP of Wellness Real Estate. Her multi-decade career sits at the nexus of hospitality, wellness and travel. Laura’s career started at CNN, where she was among the start-up team for CNN International and was one of the creators of the network’s travel programming. She covered travel for CNN for five years. Laura has worked in tandem with the American Hotel & Lodging Association on special projects for more than a decade and has also worked for associations ranging from the World Travel & Tourism Council to US Travel. Other clients included several of the world’s top hotel companies, including Hilton, Marriott and Choice Hotels International.