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Davis, California

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

On my plate: Imagining the perfect third place 

And no, the Metaverse does not count 

By NADIA ANEES — nsanees@ucdavis.edu 


Some of my favorite childhood memories are of the annual block parties my street would throw. On that one day each year, all of the neighbors on my street would come out of their houses, lawn chairs and potluck items in hand, to join each other in the middle of the road closed off with traffic cones. We’d spend the afternoon meeting and catching up with neighbors both new and old. 

My street actually gained notoriety in the neighborhood for our annual block parties — classmates and friends in elementary school would try to get invited to join in on the unique event. But since the pandemic, these block parties have struggled to make a comeback and neighbors have grown more distant. 

People from suburban cities, like myself, often dream of small-town moments like being a regular at a coffee shop where the barista remembers our name. Or we romanticize a “Gilmore Girls” moment, walking through a cozy downtown, befriending the local bookseller, having our daily meal at the local diner we’re loyal to. 

An unfortunate reality of living in the U.S. is that our lives are deeply private and separated. We reside in large, similar-looking homes with big backyards but we don’t know who our neighbors are and our parks remain empty, bland and scarce. 

Compare this life, for a moment, to the streets of small European cities like the port city of Málaga, Spain, which I had the privilege of visiting for a moment in the winter of 2019. Streets were lined with mom-and-pop shops with beautiful apartments stacked above. Couples, friends and families filled the streets with chatter and laughter. Charming coffee shops and cafes could be found on every street corner. The norm there is to sit and chat for hours with a cigarette in one hand and an espresso in the other. Lives blend together in these spaces and people seem generally happier when they spend time together in these abundant gathering places. 

In the book “The Great Good Place,” author Ray Goldenberg writes, “The typical suburban home is easy to leave behind as its occupants move to another. What people cherish most in them can be taken along in the move. There are no sad farewells at the local taverns or the corner store because there are no local taverns or corner stores.”

In my last article on walkable cities, I briefly mentioned Goldenburg’s term for the “third place.” A perfect third place is a place where people feel a strong sense of belonging, where conversation is the main activity and where there are low or no economic barriers to entry. In the era of working from home and the loneliness epidemic, we need to imagine how third places can help bring communities together and revive social connection. 

The block parties of my childhood embodied many aspects of the perfect third place. In a perfect third place, people should feel able to talk to each other as equals. At our block parties, both new and old neighbors were welcome to join — and they would, chatting with others without a sense of invasiveness. 

In his book, Ray describes the following characteristics of the third place throughout the second chapter, “The Character of Third Places,” as: 

  • On Neutral Ground
  • The Third Place Is a Leveler 
  • Conversation Is The Main Activity
  • Accessibility and Accommodation
  • The Regulars 
  • A Low Profile 
  • The Mood Is Playful
  • A Home Away From Home

I’m grateful for the libraries, local coffee shops and independent bookstores that do exist today. These spots serve the community as third places in the sense that they provide a place to spend time outside of home and work. 

In the perfect third place, it would be normal and welcome to strike up spontaneous conversations with anyone. Third places can revive communities and create a feeling of togetherness in a society where individual lives are deeply fragmented. I dream of a world where the third place that Goldenberg defines can be found throughout most neighborhoods. Although it seems distant, I hope that one day, my dream becomes a reality.


Written by: Nadia Anees — nsanees@ucdavis.edu


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