“Third Places” Are Critical to American Innovation — Here’s Why
Do you work out of a coffee shop? A coworking space? Your apartment building’s lobby, pool deck, or rec room? A shady bench in your local park, assuming the WiFi signal is strong enough and secure?
If you do, you utilize one of America’s many “third places” — spaces that are neither private homes nor public workplaces. One glance around as you type or chat away confirms that you’re not alone in your appreciation for these spaces.
Unfortunately, our third places are under threat. They have been for many decades, long before sociologist Robert Putnam’s 1996 classic Bowling Alone thrust the issue into the public consciousness.
That’s probably distressing to learn if you enjoy spending time in the coffee shop or coworking space, but this isn’t merely an aesthetic concern. Third places are critical engines of American innovation, so their loss is a potential threat to the economic vitality — and individual livelihoods — we too often take for granted.
What Are Third Places?
A “third place” is any public or semi-public space that’s not a traditional workplace but is used for professional purposes, to include networking and networking-adjacent social interaction. By their location, design, and amenities, third places enable and encourage socialization and collaboration without interfering with users’ privacy.
Spaces that people commonly think of as third places include:
- Coffee shops
- Casual restaurants and cafes
- Breweries and bars
- Parks and plazas
- Coworking spaces and business incubators
- Multi-use creative venues
- “Free spaces”
Why Third Places Are Innovation Engines
If you’ve ever worked out of a coworking hub or coffee shop popular with professionals, you understand just how productive third places can be. Let’s take a closer look at the specific attributes that make them important drivers of innovation:
- Lots of creative, driven people in the same place. Think about your favorite place to work outside your home or office. Even if it’s quiet, it’s probably quietly buzzing with entrepreneurial energy. Just being around driven, talented people is important, whether you interact with them or not.
- Open-ended networking opportunities. This is especially important in coworking hubs and other social spaces built for socialization. Many third places host networking events, mixers, and other social functions that bring creators into closer contact with one another.
- Layouts that encourage creativity and collaboration. Many third places are designed to encourage creativity and/or collaboration. They have a variety of workspaces, from two-person huddle rooms to long workbenches to booth seating.
- Infrastructure that home offices may lack. Ultra high-speed Internet. Fully stocked snack bars. Fax machines! (Yes, those are still a thing in some lines of business.) Sometimes, you don’t know what you need until you try it for the first time.
- Fewer constraints than traditional workplaces. In a third place, you’re less likely to worry about your boss staring over your shoulder or an annoying coworker interrupting you just as you hit your groove.
Preserving America’s Third Places
Your favorite coffee shop might not go out of business tomorrow, and the neighborhood park probably isn’t going anywhere. But if we’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that we can’t take anything for granted. We can all do our part to protect, preserve, and expand the spaces we cherish.
That’s why I’m working to build a new creative cultural venue in my hometown of Venice, California. The vision: a multi-use space that celebrates music, food, and creativity while creating new opportunities for collaboration.
It’s also why I often work out of my local NeueHouse, a beloved coworking hub popular with founders and creatives. I might not know every single person who uses the space, but I’ve become acquainted with many of them, and simply being in the midst of all that creative energy makes me better at what I do.