Today, “third place” is a ubiquitous term used to describe everything from bookstores to fitness studios; it’s a shorthand for places where people spend their leisure time and connect. It’s become somewhat of a gold standard for developers and brands alike to achieve third place status, and we likely have Starbucks to thank for that.
Enshrined in both their official heritage story and their “Third Place Policy,” Starbucks’ pursuit of becoming the third place in people’s daily lives was a cornerstone of their early brand strategy and a guiding force in the popularization of the chain. Far from simply offering a cup of coffee, they promised comfy chairs and easy soundtracks, free WiFi and community bulletin boards—they made their stores an everyday place to convene, while crafting a blueprint for generations of brands chasing similar success.
From retail-coffee shop hybrids to co-working community hives, the pursuit of creating third places has increased exponentially, and for good reason. In a widening consumer landscape where retaining customer loyalty is key, building a sense of community is essential. If a brand can successfully create a place where guests feel comfortable enough to dwell and connect with others, not only does it encourage repeat visits, but it fosters incredibly valuable long-term brand affinities.
However, in order to truly understand the meaning and value of the third place, we need to start from the beginning.
The term “third place” was first coined by US sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book, The Great Good Place, as a response to the increasing privatization of home life that came with the rise of the suburbs. If homes were the ‘first’ places in our lives, and workplaces were the ‘second,’ the ‘third’ place was meant to encapsulate the informal gathering places where genuine community and connection could occur: the bars, coffee shops, post offices, hair salons, libraries, and houses of worship of the time. They were accessible spaces where people could effortlessly gather, interact, and relax in public, making them important anchors of community, inclusion, and civil society.
Genuine connection and accessibility were keystones of the original “third place,” but the frenzy over emulating it in commercial experiences has led to a common refrain of pursuing third place status simply through the inclusion of food and beverage, be it in-store refreshments or entire F&B-centric brand extensions. So how might companies push beyond these strategies to cultivate the more accessible community feeling that personifies a true third place? And as the industries of hospitality, retail, coworking, and beyond try to find their footing in our new landscape, what can we learn from the third places of the past to jumpstart our thinking for the future?
We think there are a few key features of enduring third places that could provide a set of imperatives for brands, developers, and urban planners as they consider ways to cultivate these spaces in earnest moving forward.
Provide access to resources people otherwise wouldn’t have.
Just as libraries grant access to books or parks grant access to greenspace, third places should offer their audiences access to resources that add meaningful value to their daily lives. Brands like Lululemon have achieved this by offering free yoga classes in their retail locations, cementing themselves as a community resource and a way to get connected with fellow yogis in the neighborhood.
Prioritize providing long-term value, rather than chasing short-term transactions.
Places like hair salons certainly don’t assume the role of a third place for anyone overnight. Rather, it’s the result of multiple visits and building relationships with your stylist(s). Similarly, brands should think about how to foster interactions that provide long-term impact – Capital One Cafes are a prime example. They’ve invested in a people-first approach, providing free 1-on-1 money coaching, financial workshops, and more at their new generation of bank branches—all in an effort to see the return of “relationship-based banking.”
Maintain an open-door policy, inviting people from all walks of life to participate.
Part of the beauty of visiting public spaces like post offices and libraries is the people—the diverse intersection of individuals all gathered in one place. Similarly, brands should aim for a sense of accessibility that invites a wide swath of people to participate and commune. New York’s Rockefeller Center has taken such steps this past summer with the expansion of their outdoor plaza offerings. From newly-added public seating to crowd-sourced art installations and more, they’re making moves to establish themselves as a pillar for the local community.
Invite public discourse via conversation starters.
Art programs in parks have long been public amenities for all to enjoy, providing unexpected moments of inspiration. Brands could play a similar role by adding to the conversation of their environment.. The Standard, High Line stands out as a brand that brings vibrancy to its surrounding neighborhood through public art installations. Exhibitions such as felt artist Lucy Sparrow’s Felt Bodega and FriendsWithYou’s “Light Cave” have graced their sidewalk, while simultaneously providing dynamic content for the hotel brand.
Give people the tools to comfortably make the space their own.
For decades, shopping malls—with their open space and loose seating—encouraged people to not only spend more time socializing in public, but to view malls as a productive forum in which to spend daily life. From impromptu meetings to moments of respite, malls gave individuals the ease and convenience to fit the space to their needs. Similarly, Starbucks’ latest concept in Tokyo gives individuals ownership over the space in a whole new way, with bookable seating, phone booths, and semi-private rooms.
Reflect the neighborhood and local community.
Public markets have often been the first stop for tourists exploring a new city, giving newcomers an authentic taste of the neighborhood and its unique character. Concurrently, they are a regular breeding ground for locals—supporting independent, diverse vendors and fostering programming that brings the community together. The Hoxton follows a similar path with their dedication to local partnerships. From the artwork, to the FF&E, to the F&B and public programs, each moment of their guest experience is crafted to accurately reflect the personality of the surrounding locale.
Foster a shared sense of purpose.
Churches have long served as community builders, providing space for individuals of all backgrounds to come together around a shared sense of purpose. The Tia Clinic is a holistic female healthcare company aiming to do just that, by rallying all those who envision a better future for women’s healthcare. Their membership program extends care far beyond the confines of a traditional doctor’s office with a series of online and offline events centered around breaking taboos, promoting community through shared experiences.
Now that we’ve established an understanding of the defining and enduring elements of a third place, we’ll be examining how these principles come to life in various Mixed-Use Developments today.