Technology has changed the ways people view communities, but nothing can replace the need for organic in-person connections that we get from third places.
Open, public spaces in America are dying out, contributing to a larger loneliness that an average American feels. A study reported that more than 3 in 5 Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feelings of being left out, feeling poorly understood and lacking companionship. The study also reported that there has been about a 13% rise in loneliness since 2018. Twitter user @nathanallebach attributes this problem to the closing down of third places. He starts by saying, "A third place is somewhere where people hang out that isn’t home and isn’t work. Like cafes, pubs, bars, libraries, churches, parks, plazas, and barber shops, you get the idea." The concept that Nathan shared was coined by Ray Oldenburg, who calls third places "anchors of communities," adding that they're a cornerstone of relationships getting formed, given the higher chance for spontaneous conversations and art and any other activity.
Nathan continues, adding, "Throughout the US, we have lost them. In his book ‘Bowling Alone’, Robert Putnam noted that this has steady decline in a decade like dropping club memberships, church attendants and other forms of social participation." The user explains that the causes behind the loss of third spaces can be complex and may be narrowed down to "technology, polarization, institutionalized distrust and a splintering of Christianity into a cultural default religion."
A huge cause of this loss is also the shift of the populace into a car dependency. "All cities big and small used to have densely populated downtowns, where people experienced chance encounters and supported local businesses with foot traffic. As Euclidian zoning segregated suburban housing from shopping districts, these places slowly died out," Nathan explains. Private companies have since tried to fill the void left by the absence of downtown with malls as versions of town squares, but malls were dominated by big businesses.
After malls closed down, being replaced by the essence of online shopping, the user points out that we have virtually lost all semblance of gathering places. "The third places most of our suburbs have today are car-dependent convenience chains like Starbucks or some lifestyle centers in some wealthier areas." Businesses like Starbucks are extremely consumer-centric and those are modeled after how "on-the-go" people have become.
"People try to replicate community online through multiplayer video games, forums, and social media groups." The user points to how good third places with no pressure to make purchases, encouraging people to sit and just hang out for hours, talking to strangers and reading books with nobody pressurizing consumers to just rush out with mobile orders (referring to Starbucks type operations) are "hard to come by today."
I've thought about this for years, and you did an *extremely* good job articulating the problem here. The lack of third spaces feels like one of the greatest problems (and sources of destructive disconnect) in modern American society. Excellent summarization! Thank you very much!— A. B. Thompson (@procrastixote) September 29, 2022
The user suggests that third places can be built up and supported by foot traffic if people build mixed-use neighborhoods that combine housing with commerce. "Not to mention the organic events prop up like black parties, barbecues, and yard sales," the user adds. Nathan argues that it is undeniable that technology has changed the ways people view communities, but nothing can replace the need for organic in-person connections that we get from third places. "Without walkable communities, third places can’t thrive. And without third places, we lose the heart of our communities," Nathan concludes.
Public libraries are among the few remaining “third places.”— Ned Baugh (@skeptict) September 29, 2022
Many users agreed with Nathan's hypothesis, adding that scholars have argued the importance of community areas. A user tweeted, "DeTocqueville found that the strength of voluntary associations is what made America such a compelling experiment. Makes sense that their dissolution would signal a decline." Another user adds that the removal of third places contributes to criminalizing, "Can we also talk about how eliminating 3rd places has helped expand criminalization & policing? Commodified 3rd places require the police to enforce the 'buy or get out' laws thus leading to more quality of life crimes."
This is what I noticed when I came to the US from the U.K. I’m used to towns having centres, usually with a town hall and several meeting places, places for people to hang out. Europe takes this even further with their cafe culture and walkable streets.— Becca M - ADHD ✊🏻🏳️🌈🏳️⚧️🇵🇸♥️ (@SparklyB) October 1, 2022