Local Third Places and Re-Imagining Economies as Sustainable

Professor Ray Oldenburg has spent many years analysing the social function of what he has coined ‘third places’. His books work to highlight the need for juncture places; places we meet and chew the cud with others in our community and network. Rather than the idea of social separate from economic, he recognises that the two lenses of seeing the world as being intimately bound and tied to each other.

Alfred Marshall
Alfred Marshall

The economic and the social cohabit the same landscape acting as a function of each other; this at least has been a reality, and is a necessary truth if we are to understand our world as a humanized place rather than as a machine of production. This perspective meets readily with Alfred Marshall’s statement ‘Political economy or economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life’; this casts the study as something more human and rich than dry and merciless profiteering at any cost.

Michelle Long is Executive Director of Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), a national forum for people championing local economy and funders to ‘connect, build their capacity, and innovate’. Her aim is to advance the Localist Movement to create real prosperity in local communities which everyone benefits from. Part of their vision is a global system of human-scale, interconnected local economies that exist in balance with local ecosystems to meet the basic needs of everyone, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life.

Thus the third place helps us understand a deeper notion of economics and economies which is more representative of a sustainable and interconnected whole that is not about the domination of one monoculture or monopoly force. It aids us by giving us the language to represent a type of plurality we find in the subsidiarity of locally owned independent businesses and people living freer lives in and through interrelationships with each other.

Michael Shuman describes subsidiarity in his book ‘The Small-Mart Revolution; How Local Businesses Are Beating The Global Competition‘: “At the core of my worldview is a belief in subsidiarity. That is, I believe that individuals and communities should have enough freedom and autonomy to solve their own problems. To the extent that I embrace collective action, whether public or private, I believe it should be done as locally as possible, where affected individuals can participate fully in the decision making and can truly know the faces of those touched by their choice

In his book ‘Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the Great Good Places at the Heart of Our Communities’ Ray Oldenburg brings together a collection of accounts from an array of businesses and collective enterprises which have all embodied and provided much needed vitality to the neighbourhoods where they are situated. These spaces are all welcoming, and in that sense co-owned, supporting a genuine feeling of belonging, place and affection for the people of the area to gather in them. These spaces provide various functions, and the book is about reversing some of the reductionism of the financial bottom line that has come to dominate how we value businesses.

Celebrating the Third Place

In a time where ‘social enterprise’ is emerging as a rhetoric, I am reminded by Graham Bell that all businesses are social enterprises – it just depends on how social the enterprise is, and what values are embodied. The following is a simple list of the enterprises found in Oldenburg’s book which can give a very basic sense of the tapestry of functioning third places that produce an economy and bring people together in a community:

Annies Gift and Garden Shop; The Third Place Coffeehouse; Crossroads Shopping Centre; Horizon Books; Old St George; Square One Restaurant; El Taco Nazo; Tunnicliff’s Tavern; Miami Passport Photoshop; Good Neighbour Coffee House; Joe’s Cozy Corner and Galatoires, Civilisation; The Great Good Gym; The Neutral Ground Coffee House; The Sharpest Irony; The Blue Moon Tavern; Plank’s Cafe; Maxwell Street….


Oldenburg does not describe franchises nor public limited companies floated on the stockmarket. Each enterprise is a unique story and personal account of an infinitely complex space. It is infinitely complex for each is populated by human beings – this means human lives and human stories. Blood, sweat, tears and every moment of elation that works up to a given point where eventualities converge and a perfect cup of coffee is made because the person who made it and the person who drinks it connect in the subtlest and most mysterious of interactions.

This might sound grandiose, however, we must bear in mind that we still cannot produce a computer to pass the Turing Test; in short, no thing based on an algorithm can convince us we have conversed with a sentient being; computers are merely surrogates providing an impoverished version of what we seek out in cultural life.

To manage complex situations and tasks, we need complex systems – simply put, we need people; real life human beings who have their agency to effectively steward real life human spaces and complex systems. A procedural manual and policy statement no longer is suitable for anything other than the dysfunctional, mundane and mediocre at best.

Drugstores, bookshops, coffeeshops, and other independent retail operations that once served widely as local gathering places are being bought up and replaced by mammoth, impersonal chain operations. Through opposition to these community-destroying behemoths is mounting as they continue to grow and independent operators continue to fall under inhospitable conditions.

We are now at a point where we need to re-appraise the way we are collectively living and constructing our world. Thinkers, individuals and communities around the world are coming together to try and reimagine our world thus reshaping how we act on it. Helpful in this line of thought is the concept of the ‘Triple bottom line’ coined by John Elkington.


This has become popular as an accounting framework comprising three parts: social, environmental (or ecological) and financial. Sustainability is a matter of what should be common sense, and is arguably interchangeable with the concept of economics where ‘people, planet and profit’ are all understood as critical to each other.

Ultimately understanding things as a system, the social is environmental is financial, as if any one of these is ignored, the other two will be damaged. The following is a video of Michelle Long, David Orr and Will Patton speaking about ideas of how we reach towards sustainable economies at the New Economics Institute.