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It’s time to take back third places

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Starbucks’s new policy brands the stores as a “third place.” But the most effective third places come from the community.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

On a typical Tuesday afternoon at your average Starbucks, you’ll find people lounging in armchairs, typing away on laptops, and catching up with friends to the sound of whirring latte frothers and inoffensive coffeehouse pop. Except not on Tuesday, May 29, when all 8,000-plus of its corporate-operated stores closed down for the afternoon so staff members could participate in mandatory racial-bias training.

After two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for asking to use the bathroom without making a purchase and then sitting down peacefully, the Seattle-based coffee chain is doubling down on its business strategy to be America’s “third place”—the most important social space after home and work—by enacting more new policies and teaching employees about upholding them.

“We’re here to make Starbucks a place where everyone, everyone feels welcome,” CEO Kevin Johnson said in a promotional video previewing the training. In an attempt to reduce situations where discrimination may occur, Starbucks will now officially allow people to do what many have already been doing for some time—use its restrooms and sit down at its tables without buying anything. It’s a move that attempts to make the stores public space.

Third places existed long before Starbucks. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, which described why community hangouts like cafes, bars, and hair salons are essential breeding grounds for social connections, inclusion, and democracy. Now, the chain has incorporated the philosophy in its retail design and business strategy to the point where it’s essentially claiming ownership of the phrase. “We want our stores to be the third place,” its new policy states.

But can a corporation like Starbucks ever truly be the third place—and now “public” space—it’s trying so hard to be? As the Philadelphia incident laid bare, not for everyone. Our cities and communities need third places, but to fully reap their benefits, it’s time to take them back from Starbucks—it’s time for the public and for communities to start making their own.

Oldenburg’s third place research is based around the primary social spaces that people occupy: work and home being first and second. While work is a structured and formal social experience and home is a private experience, third places are more relaxed environments in which people feel comfortable and to which they return time and again to socialize, to relax, and to enjoy the company of those around them. A cohort of regulars is what makes a third place.

Good third spaces are abuzz with conversation and yield spontaneous relationships between people from different social and economic backgrounds—essential for building strong communities, creating empathy between people, and maintaining a view of oneself as part of a something larger. Oldenburg saw these spaces diminish during the postwar decades as residential areas—i.e., suburbs—became devoid of public gathering places and lives became more competitive and private.

Third places can be churches, coffee shops, gyms, hair salons, post offices, main streets, bars, beer gardens, bookstores, parks, community centers, and gift shops—inexpensive places where people come together and life happens. In other words, they’re a community’s living room.

“There is a reason there was such a strong fight over lunch counters in the civil rights movement: The spaces of our daily lives are very important for our cities and our society,” Justin Garrett Moore, an urban planner and executive director of New York City’s Public Design Commission, tells Curbed. “In the urban design world we talk a lot about the ‘human experience’ of our shared built environment. The reality is that many of the important and even defining exchanges, interactions, and even altercations that help define our human experience of the city happen in the blurred public-private zone of third spaces.”

When Starbucks—which began as an independent store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market—started to expand in the 1980s, it first tried to replicate European-style corner espresso bars, small counters where people stopped in for a quick coffee. Then customers began asking for places to sit and more food options.

By the early 1990s, Starbucks was leaning heavily on Oldenburg’s third place philosophy for its customer experience strategy. But while third places were the basis for many design decisions—details as small as round tables to make people feel more comfortable sitting alone in a public space—that doesn’t necessarily mean that the establishments are actually the community spaces Starbucks aspired to create.

In his 2002 book Celebrating the Third Place, Oldenburg called a “popular coffee house chain” a facsimile of a third space, citing its “high volume, fast turnover operations that present an institutional ambiance at an intimate level.” Plus the sensibilities that Starbucks deemed pleasant for some customers—the music, the decorations, the very fact that it is a corporate chain—are exclusionary for others. Coffee shops have long been symbols of gentrification, and upscale cafes are safer social spaces for certain demographic groups.

Protesters gathered outside the Philadelphia Starbucks where two black men were arrested.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

In a Slate roundtable about being black in public, which took place after the Philadelphia arrests, sociologist and Virginia Commonwealth University professor Tressie McMillan Cottom criticized Starbucks’ interpretation of third places:

“[T]his space is supposed to be made by the culture. Starbucks said, ‘Oh no, we will make it about consumption.’ And black people are always going to lose in that version of a third space, because the right to transact is lost when all the ideas of property and police become a tool for a basic-ass cup of coffee. The Starbucks third space is a place where white people can consume an idea that they’re being in a diverse public, while their $5 coffee buys them the safety of a barista who can call the police on someone to keep the space safe for them. Which is to say, it isn’t for us.”

Third places are a vital part of cities and cities of all sizes need more of them—and more that aren’t a simulacrum. Instead of corporations vying to become “the” third place in cities, a wider array of public third places could be designed to be inclusive from the start.

“If we are going to see a surge of new, genuine third places, we believe that it is more likely to come from placemaking driven by local communities, rather than a change of corporate policy,” Nate Storring, Deputy Director of The Bass Initiative on Innovation & Placemaking at the Project for Public Spaces, tells Curbed.

As community spaces, corporate chains can play an important role in cities. McDonald’s has become a third place for many seniors and low-income people who come for the inexpensive food and coffee (about $1 for a cup compared to $2 at Starbucks), lack of the bureaucracy found at community centers, free WiFi, and staff that makes them feel comfortable lingering.

Apple is using a “town square” metaphor to describe its retail spaces and it likely helps those who need to hop on a computer for a minute or two (and look like Apple customers), but it’s no replacement for actual town squares. Because of a lack of publicly owned and maintained infrastructure, like toilets, Starbucks has become an essential fixture for some people; its new policy is a step torward making it accessible to all people.

But we don’t yet know if, or exactly how, the policy will be enforced.

Research shows anti-bias training isn’t effective. Meanwhile, Starbucks staffers who completed the training have mixed feelings about whether or not it will make a difference. Some employees think the curriculum will help, while others pointed out serious deficiencies: no mention of intersectionality and no protocol for how to deal with difficult customer situations. A lifetime of bias can’t be undone with one course. There will always be the presumption that in these privately owned spaces, customers are subject to the rules of the proprietor, which can change at any given moment. Corporations still reserve the right to refuse service.

“Racial equity and inclusion is the key to building successful, thriving cities and the private sector plays a critical role,” Sarah Treuhaft, senior director of PolicyLink, an organization working to advance racial and economic equity, tells Curbed. “Turning their businesses into welcoming ‘third places’ for all people, not only paying customers, is a positive step forward.

Expanding our understanding of the value of the “public”—in terms of public institutions, public spaces, and public action—is critical to advancing racial and economic equity in many ways. So while it is a step in the right direction for private third spaces to welcome non-paying customers, it is important to distinguish between public and private ‘third spaces’ and to safeguard and grow our public third spaces.”

Experts I interviewed suggested that the third place approach could be expanded to a wider variety of spaces. Carol Coletta, a senior fellow with the Kresge Foundation’s American Cities practice, views investment in public third places, like parks and arts centers, as an urgent priority. She believes the increase of private space and decline of public space has led to more silos within our culture.

Coletta is currently working on Civic Commons, a $40 million philanthropic initiative to reinvigorate civic spaces that have experienced decades of underinvestment. Some of the funding has gone to the Stony Island Arts Bank, a free nonprofit cultural institution built in an abandoned bank on Chicago’s southside; to a new greenway and trail that links neighborhoods in Akron; to creating a greenway and renovating abandoned commercial space in Detroit; to building a new park and library in Memphis; and renovating a library and greenspace in Philadelphia.

Coletta believes that by investing in space that welcomes all people and fosters socioeconomic mixing—just like Oldenburg’s third place philosophy—cities can reverse social and economic fragmentation, nurture more trust and inclusion among residents, and increase environmental sustainability.

“Sharing spaces together goes against all of the marketing we see,” Coletta tells Curbed. “You want to find like-minded people, like demographics—that’s how you market things.” . .When people with financial options exit the public sphere and go to private space instead, Coletta continues, there is less political support for public third places, they start to feel unnecessary, and “they are consigned for people without financial options, which has been much to the detriment of our communities, democracy, and equity.”

Daria Pizetta, a principal at the architecture firm H3 and a juror for the AIA’s Library Building Awards, would—surprise, surprise—argue that libraries have become third spaces in many communities.

“Commercial establishments, if even publicly accessible, are not necessarily free,” she tells Curbed. “In a coffee shop, the expectation is that you will buy a cup of coffee. And, once you finish that cup of coffee, your ‘lease’ on the café stool is up and you must move on. Community centers, which are usually free, offer programs, but these are much more narrowly focused. What the public library has been able to achieve is a broad appeal to a vast array of people. Where community services have declined, they have taken up the slack. Where else can I, for example, on a single day, take on ESL class, have my toddler participate in LEGO group and then play Mahjong? And while there, check out a book and maybe even renew my passport. They provide the opportunity to relax, explore and invigorate our senses. They also provide human contact through the librarian. There is a helpful, knowledgeable, professional offering you help. Where else can you find that?”

Koning Eizenberg Architects’ design for the Pico Branch Library, in Santa Monica, received an 2018 AIA Library Building Award. The interior space is intended to be a community living room. Meanwhile, the outdoor space was designed to accommodate events like farmers markets.
Eric Staudenmaier

Recently, libraries have taken up the third place mantle for teens specifically, as Curbed’s Alexandra Lange reported. By thinking about space for young people—a demographic that doesn’t have much public space designed for them—these libraries have fostered a new base, and potential life-long users. Measures like stocking shelves with books teens liked to read, creating multimedia libraries, adding up-to-date computers and electronics, installing furniture that lets teens sit and lounge however they please, and abolishing no-food-and-drink rules have helped libraries become a regular stop for young people. (Imagine the outcomes of someone going to an educationally enriching space like a library instead of a consumptive space like Starbucks.)

When cities start to think of public space as a third space, exciting things can happen. Lemay, a working-class suburban town outside of St. Louis, recently received its first community center. Lemay Community Recreation Center and Aquatic Complex has a public lounge, meeting rooms, and picnic space. There’s also a pool, gym, indoor basketball court, and track. (Some facilities have an annual membership fee, but there are designated open hours and day passes, too.) While Jefferson Park, in which the center is located, offered open space, there weren’t amenities and a central beacon.

“I believe architecture can change people’s lives and change them for the better,” says David Polzin, the executive director of design at CannonDesign, the architecture firm that conceived the building. “When you take an economically and socially struggling community like Lemay you hope [this center] reduces crime, gets kids off the street, makes people healthier, creates a space for meetings seniors that wouldn’t otherwise be able to have. It’s just an incredible improvement and also instills a sense of pride in one’s community. Civic buildings and public buildings like this go a long way to represent who we are. They should be commensurate with our pride of place.”

A new recreation center and pool in Lemay, St. Louis, shows what a public third space can look like.
Courtesy Cannon Design

Public spaces face challenges, too—they aren’t a panacea for racism and inequality. New public space is so rare that it’s often viewed as a hostile and destabilizing force to existing communities: the so-called High Line effect. Like private space, public space is selectively policed and surveilled, which is a severe civil rights issue in the country.

In April, video of a white woman calling police on black men barbecuing in an Oakland, California, park went viral; the woman believed charcoal grilling was illegal and took it upon herself to alert authorities. Like the men in Starbucks, they were peaceful and weren’t doing anything illegal. A difference here was that the park was specifically intended for the public. When police arrived, they let the men carry on. A few days later, hundreds of people showed up to the very same spot to throw a barbecue as a symbol of community solidarity. The space was being used as intended.

To Justin Garrett Moore, of the New York City Public Design Commission, making cities more inclusive is a question of intent, regulation, and design for both private and public third spaces.

“The exact same supposedly inclusively designed space can be regulated to have very different outcomes for public and social benefit,” he tells Curbed. “Similarly, the exact same supposedly inclusively regulated space can be designed for very different outcomes for public and social benefit. So we need to comprehensively plan, design, and police for health and equity; just having space isn’t enough.”

Moore points to the rezoning of the Brooklyn waterfront as an example of intent, regulation, and design working in tandem. Formerly private, there is now public access to the shoreline in many areas and spaces designed to welcome use. Brooklyn Bridge Park, for example, has lawns, bike paths, basketball and volleyball courts, BBQ areas, kiosks for beverages, and benches where people can just sit and be. Selling nearby land to housing developers paid for these amenities. “When you visit the waterfront public spaces, they are much more inclusive than the people who reside in or own those waterfront properties,” Moore says. “These places were planned, designed, and regulated for that to be the case.”

Shin-pei Tsay, executive director of the Gehl Institute, studies public life and how to better design cities for people. The organization—and its founder, urbanist Jan Gehl—believe that a thriving public life is essential for health, equity, and democratic participation. One of the Institute’s recent research areas involved researching the effect of privatizing public space through public-private partnerships, financing mechanisms that cities have adopted during lean budgetary times to help generate and maintain publicly accessible space. “What you lose in privatizing efforts is what is public and what is civic and what is shared in our society to what is monetized,” she tells Curbed.

To help strengthen the bond-building potential of public third places, Tsay suggests that a “policy of inclusion” extend throughout the planning, design, and maintenance of public space. The Gehl Institute is working on a new rubric to measure inclusion and will examine things like how much a civic project incorporates the history of its place and its community, how much its community was directly engaged in the design process, how the physical design promotes inclusion, and long-term public stewardship of a space.

“It’s not just civic engagement, which is what a lot of urban design talks about regarding inclusion,” Tsay says. “It’s much more holistic since it thinks about past, present, and future.”

Community centers, libraries, neighborhood parks and playgrounds, and arts centers are just a sampling of the potential for public third places. Moore mentioned that health care clinics and hospitals could become more community oriented—a trend that’s in its nascent stages. Treuhaft would like to see free spaces that can facilitate activism and democratic participation so residents and community-based organizations can engage in community planning, development, organizing, and policy-change efforts. Tsay suggested that bus stops could be revamped to have more of a third place sensibility.

The possibilities for public third places are endless if we make more opportunities available. “[A great third place] is active, but not regulated, but not chaotic,” Carol Coletta, of the Kresge Foundation, says. “It is space where you can happily do your own thing at the pace at which you want to do it. It’s a place where you feel welcome. You see people you know and people you don’t know, which provides the possibility. It provides the possibility of getting to know something or someone you know. It should enable curiosity.”

Shouldn’t more corners of our cities be like that?