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Comforting Third Spaces

Access to "third spaces" can promote health and well-being.

Jasmin Tahmaseb
Source: Jasmin Tahmaseb

Last night we had dinner with two friends whom I had not seen for several months. We met after work in a local restaurant. We talked, had drinks, and enjoyed a lovely dinner. Like us, an increasingly number of people are using so-called “third spaces” to catch up with friends and family, to relax, eat, exercise, to relax from hectic schedules. Third spaces are places where we neither live nor work. As Robert D. Putnam wrote 15 years ago, in his book Bowling Alone, the frequency of people meeting their neighbors for a social evening dropped by a third from 1974 to 1998, and likely by half since World War II.

Gatherings with friends and family in third spaces are, however, on the rise. In his 1999 book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Ray Oldenburg introduced the notion of “third spaces.” He described these spaces as "the core settings of informal public life." In his book Oldenburg states that third spaces represent the heart of the community and that such places are essential for social connectedness and democracy. Third spaces provide stress-free, neutral spaces for reconnection, renewal, and relaxation. According to Oldenburg, third spaces are "great good places," where people can gather on neutral ground to interact. These are places where people can put aside their concerns and enjoy good company and conversation in a space beyond the realms of home and work. Oldenburg, however, suggests that the use of third spaces is on the decline. I would suggest that they are not. Because many of us have hectic days, we are often not able to invite friends over for home-cooked meals. Having access to a local pub or coffee shop, or restaurant, or a park in which to walk can bring people together. As the pace of life continues to quicken, people use a variety of third places to reconnect with friends, to hold family gatherings, and to host holiday festivities.

My family has a longstanding tradition of throwing a large holiday party—usually at one of our homes. In December we broke tradition by having the party in a restaurant. Although the festivities turned out to be more expensive, the experience was it was a less stressful. Get-togethers in third spaces can be organized and arranged like our holiday party, or they can occur informally, especially if there are third spaces in the neighborhood—coffee shops, parks, libraries, or community gardens.

It is clear that 21st century life styles transformed our use of third spaces. These days, on-line social networks have further increased our social connectedness and our growing penchant for exercise has led to an expanded variety of third spaces. Social scientists see a link between the use of third spaces and the promotion of well-being and happiness. Having available public spaces where one can relax, connect with others, rejuvenate, exercise, also has numerous health benefits.

Natural settings are great “third space”. These “green third spaces” have the added benefit of promoting contact with the natural environment. A neighborhood park can serve as a space for intergenerational gatherings, picnics, and family reunions. Walking or cycling with friends can lead to greater physical as well as psychological well-being. Research has indicated that green spaces provide settings for renewal, mental fatigue recovery. Green spaces can also increase our learning potential and even improve our cognitive functioning. Access to green space is not equal. All too often there is more green space to be found in affluent communities. Those who struggle economically are also, at times, at a disadvantage when it comes to having access to health promoting green spaces. However awareness of the need for a natural connection and the health promoting benefits of activity and fresh air has led cities and communities to increase their green spaces for all of its residents. Walking trails, dog parks, and community gardens are becoming more numerous.

In Germany there has long been an appreciation of green spaces—especially in the form of Schrebergartens, or community gardens. Most cities and towns in Germany, as I know from my childhood years there, feature Schrebergartens. These community gardens that tend to places of relaxation, recreation, socializing, picnicking, even camping, in addition to being a place where flowers, fruits, and vegetables can be grown. Dr. Daniel Schreber, a 19th century naturalist, wanted to create places for children in Leipzig, his hometown. He designed the gardens to teach children how to grow vegetables. Schrabergartens grew in popularity during food and housing shortages caused by WWI and WWII. People built small houses on a leased plot of land. These days Schrebergatens serve as weekend retreats where people plant or tend to their vegetables, visit with their neighbors, relax with their families, most of all to connect with nature. They are indeed “green third spaces."

Third spaces can also exist virtually. Online support sets, activist alliances, family groups can provide people with a sense of connection and belonging. They can consist of online spaces that provide an opportunity for keeping in touch, reconnecting, and learning. Regardless of their form, third spaces provide the opportunities to socialize, to learn about new ideas, to receive support from others, and to relax and restore. By enabling us to stay healthy and socially connected third spaces, especially green third spaces make communities and cities healthier and happier places to live.

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