In Praise of the Endangered ‘Third Space’

The public spaces where people can spend time among strangers without buying something are crucial to healthy cities—and are quickly disappearing.

2 minute read

November 1, 2023, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

People sitting on lawn chairs in front of green meadow with New York City skyscrapers in background in Bryant Park, New York.

Sina Ettmer / Adobe Stock

Writing in Strong Towns, Tiffany Owens Reed vividly describes the pleasures of ‘third spaces,’ those truly public spaces that provide a safe, vibrant place to just exist without having to purchase anything or be engaged in any particular activity.

These spaces attract all kinds of people and facilitate all kinds of activities. They’re organic, uncoordinated, and leisurely. They function like an extension of our own living rooms or backyards. Their value comes from providing a space where strangers can happily be alongside other strangers doing something they enjoy.

Owens Reed doesn’t have an explanation for the phenomenon, but asserts that “there’s something magnetic about spaces where strangers can be alone together, and in our increasingly fragmented and polarized society, this is valuable.” To that end, cities should protect these increasingly rare spaces where all kinds of people can mingle.

Owens Reed recommends three keys to creating good public spaces: keeping them closed to cars; making them “clearly defined and slightly enclosed” to create a sense of safety; and placing them near businesses without making them transaction-focused. “When public parks, squares, and plazas are situated close to practical businesses, it creates a beneficial cycle for them both: public spaces provide places to be while businesses provide options of things to do, both increasing foot traffic, overall vitality, and safety.”

The piece concludes with a provocative question: “What would our cities look like if we designed for all of life, not just a few activities that we can count on for tax revenue?”

Tuesday, October 31, 2023 in Strong Towns

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