Public Places Where We Meet And Share Are Third Places

What role do public places play in the lives of people ? What is the value of a pub ?  How important is a café ?  Why do we need libraries ?  Do we just wash clothes in launderettes ?  These are some of the questions which I am interested in when I explore the concept of ‘third place’.  Pubs, cafes, libraries and launderettes can all be ‘third places’ according to Prof Ray Oldenburg who coined the term.  He argues in detail of the importance of these social spaces which exist outside of our homes (first place) and workplaces (second place).  Third places are the spaces where we meet and share with other people…

The Great Good Place


The value of the ‘pub’ is in it’s name – public house.  Pubs and taverns have been spaces which have been used for centuries to unwind and connect with a broad array of people in our community.  Up until very recently they have been heavily gendered places where women have not been made welcome, however, it is good to see that trend start to shift in the UK – at least to some extent.  So what is the value of a ‘house where the public meets’ ?


I can only give relatively small indications of some of the importance of what goes on in these spaces, and for a deeper study I would refer you to Ray Oldenburg’s book ‘The Great Good Place’.  A pub (read this as public house) is not just a place where alcohol is sold, but a place where conversations are had.  Standing in any traditional pub you can can see the mix of people who are rooted in the spaces, observing characters who can be familiar features of the landscape.  Often you will notice a spread of age range going on, where generations meet and mingle over news, stories and humour.


If you talk to any traditional publican for any given stretch of time you will start to get a sense of the familial bonds which grow almost imperceptably amongst people as over time they meet, interact, observe, and establish mutual recognitions of faces in their community. I say traditional because the corporate and chain spaces tend to be sterile in comparison with independent and personally managed places.


Examples of people who steward these spaces are priceless in the hospitality industry.  An example in Edinburgh is George Fyvie who manages – and has managed – several very successful public houses.  Whilst having various qualities of industriousness, drive, business savvy and social acumen, he also holds central to what he does a sense of community. Whilst dealing with George in delivering Ragged University events, it was always very potent to read what he had at the bottom of his emails:


“To receive guests is to take charge of their happiness during the entire time they are under your roof.”  Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. (1755-1826)


Here in the United Kingdom, people who work in the hospitality trade are not valued highly enough.  On the continent, in places like France and Italy, it is obvious to see that the waiter and maître d’hôtel are recognized as pivotal parts of the whole culture, and valued  as such.  The managerial art they perform is something which is regarded as such – an art, and it is rewarded in respect to the value it holds.  The hospitality industry has been somewhat demeaned in the UK and is referred to disparagingly as the service industry.  This is foolish as these are the people who help make our world.


George Fyvie


What George Fyvie and others invested in the hospitality industry are doing are practicing the ancient Greek concept of Xenia – ‘Guest-Friendship’.   This is an irreplaceable valuing of ‘generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home and/or associates of the person bestowing guest-friendship’. The rituals of hospitality created and expressed a reciprocal relationship between guest and host expressed in both material benefits (such as the giving of gifts to each party) as well as non-material ones (such as protection, shelter, favors, or certain normative rights)’.


This is what is, in part, embodied within the carefully cultivated spaces which become third places.  They do not happen by chance, and like anything precious, valuable and giving of abundance, must be nurtured in particular ways.  A collection of ingredients no more makes a cake than does an assemblage of people and factors in a building make a business and third place.  What I am interested in is the interrelationship between business and community via the third place.



How important is a café ?

Is it simply a space where people go to get fueled up on caffeine ? No, this is a grossly deficient imposition on culture and our biological environment.  Talk to anyone who cares about coffee and soon it emerges that there is a recognition this this is the fruit of a plant which can be abused – and make bad coffee. Given its due respect and the coffee plant creates an overwhelmingly pleasant experience around which people will want to gather.


In Edinburgh Gustavo Pardo and Michael Wilson would argue to the death the difference between good coffee and bad.  Together they created Artisan Roast, a small coffee shop in Edinburgh where they source the beans from independent suppliers, roasted them, and made the coffee beverage in the shop.  Such care and attention has propelled them into a situation over the years where they are recognised as making some of the best coffee you can get.  It is still priced cheaper than other big brand places which proffer industrially produced poor quality coffee, yet they still make a roaring trade and occupy a small shop (although their business has expanded to other premises).



What has made this an exceptional business is the sense of place they have provided along with their coffee.  All the same attention has gone into the careful cultivation of the artisan coffee has also gone into the space which makes everyone welcome; they even put on community events.  It seems obvious when you meet the staff that not one of them ‘hangs their personality on a peg’ when they come in; it feels more like their living rooms where they are having conversations with customers, joking and generally having a fun time whilst working hard to get people the coffee they have come for.


This exemplar is an example of what happened from the seventeenth century onward when coffee became a popular thing to congregate around.  It proposed itself as an alternative to the gin palaces which sported alcohol.  The oldest coffee house in England is reputed to be in Oxford; The Grand Cafe still stands on the site of the oldest coffee house which was established circa 1650.  It afforded people a chance to get together and discuss ideas. 


Aytoun Ellis discusses the impact of coffee houses on social and intellectual exchange in his book ‘The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-houses’: “There is every reason to believe that the two Oxford coffee clubs provided the nucleus of what was to be the Royal Society. It is true that, as early as 1645, weekly meetings had been held in London of “divers persons inquisitive into natural philosophy and other parts of human learning” (page 24)


In his book ‘All About Coffee’, William Harrison Ukers also writes about the English coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries which had come to be known as the ‘Penny Universities‘: “…in 1677 that “none dare venture into the coffee houses unless he be able to argue the question whether Parliament were dissolved or not.”  All through the years remaining in the seventeenth century, and through most of the eighteenth century, the London coffee houses grew and prospered.


As before stated, they were originally temperance institutions, very different from the taverns and ale houses “within the walls of the cofffee houses there was always much noise, much clatter, much bustle, but decency was never outraged”. At prices ranging from one to two pence per dish, the demand grew so great that coffee house keepers were obliged to make drink in pots holding eight or ten gallons.  The seventeenth century coffee houses were sometimes referred to as the “penny universities”, because they were great schools of conversation, and the entrance fee was only a penny.”


Lloyd's Coffee House
Lloyd’s Coffee House

Coffee houses where the setting where communities started forming what were to eventually become great institutions such as Lloyd’s of London – one of the oldest existing insurance markets – or the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.


Lloyd’s of London has its roots in Lloyd’s Coffee House which was started by Edward Lloyd in 1688 on Tower Street. This provided a setting where sailors, merchants, and ship owners could meet and discuss business around mutually insuring the delivery of goods.  Lloyd’s offered food, sustenance, coffee, a place to meet, weather reports and shipping news.


The RSA, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce or now just referred to as the Royal Society of Arts started as a proposal in 1753 by William Shipley for an intellectual society that would make Britain a center for intellectual advancements in the areas of arts and sciences.


The organisation would meet at Rawthmell’s coffee house on Henrietta Street in Covent Garden.  From past to present, this community of practice started in the informal setting bringing together names such as Charles Dickens, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, William Hogarth, John Diefenbaker, Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee.


Third places are the roots of learning networks and educational settings, allowing the free flow of ideas and the important mechanism of knowledge spillover to take place. Knowledge spillover is a helpful term which describes the benefits of an exchange of ideas among individuals.

link to a paper on knowledge spillovers
link to a paper on knowledge spillovers

Click to download

Thus, the café and coffee house must not be demeaned as unimportant in our cultural or intellectual space but more understood as settings for our social and intellectual futures.  Small independent businesses offer settings for third places in which a great amount of knowledge exchange can take place because we meet face to face and share in a dynamic that promotes all our human potentials.  These are the places where social capital is found and shared.



Why do we need libraries ?

Are libraries just repositories for books ? No, these are intricate social spaces stacked with public value.  They are obviously places of great and important formal knowledge resources capable of enriching people’s lives and have been commonly referred to as the ‘poor man’s university’, particularly in the Victorian era.


The great industrialist, Andrew Carnegie famously gave a good portion of his fortune to the creation of openly accessible public libraries across the world. Carnegie believed that the wealthy had a moral obligation to use their money when they were alive for constructive social purposes such as creating public endowments and public institutions of culture and learning. In his essay ‘The Gospel of Wealth‘ he wrote about how distributing the wealth one had accumulated was the ‘true antidote’ for income inequality, and thus the best way to reconcile the rich and the poor.


He concluded his essay with “yet the day is not far distant when the man who dies leaving behind him millions of available wealth, which was free to him to administer during life, will pass away “unwept, unhonored, and unsung,” no matter to what uses he leaves the dross which he cannot take with him. Of such as these the public verdict will then be: “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”


He was a man who lived his philosophy and brought about the building of 2509 public libraries between 1883 and 1929. 1689 were built in the United States, 660 in the United Kingdom and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, Mauritius, Malaysia and Fiji.


Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” — Andrew Carnegie


A visionary like Carnegie was interested in increasing public value rather than simply increasing the stock of assets available in society, and I suspect that he perceived complex social function in them as spaces.  It is simple and reductivist to constrain libraries to the notion of buildings with books in, as they play so many a role in people’s lives.


Katherine Sharp, a colleague of Melvil Dewey who devised the Dewey decimal system, gives the description of the library as “a laboratory, a workshop, a school, a university of the people, from which the students are never graduated” (Robert F. Nardin, “A Search for Meaning:  American Library Metaphors, 1876 – 1926,”  The  Library Quarterly 71 (April 2001): 111)


We can start to unpick the social functions of libraries by remembering the conversations which take place inside them: “Of particular importance….are those open-ended dialogues between information seeker and librarian that begin with a question and often become ‘mini-instruction sessions, with librarians helping to develop the topic idea, lay out the structure of information…, explain and differentiate between types of information, provide an overview of general search strategies, demonstrate the use of a particular database, explain the interface, lead users in their search, direct them to where they can retrieve the materials found, and guide them in presenting their information clearly and appropriately.” (Best Practices in Government Information: A Global Perspective  edited by Irina Lynden, Jane Wu, Page 76)


People build relationships in libraries; these are distinct community third places where people meet and share.  Libraries are temples for the lonely, nurseries for children, they are crossroads in which we meet people, classrooms for communities to engineer their own learning and destinies, spaces we go to contemplate issues affecting our lives, spaces we find information about our community, spaces where we can relax and enjoy ourselves.


Latchkey Children in the Library and Community by Frances S. Dowd
Latchkey Children in the Library and Community by Frances S. Dowd

Mark H Moore writes about the challenge that public office managers face when having to adapt both to the needs of the public and also stay true to the formal mandate to which they have signed up to.  In ‘Creating Public Value’ he opens the first chapter on the subject of “The Town Librarian And The Latchkey Children”.


Moore argues for an entrepreneurial spirit in managing public spaces which negotiates the divide of interests between the older people who used the library for reading and meeting, and the latchkey children who used the library for the same purposes but more actively and noisily.  There is a tension which has to be negotiated in stewarding such a space, and the community spirit the librarian embodies in opening out the library to care for latchkey children and the complaints of some that the public resources were being used to subsidize relatively narrow interests had to be brokered by the Librarian:


“…a last idea occurred to her: perhaps the problem could be solved by finding an answer within her own organization.  A little rescheduling might ensure that there would be adequate staff to supervise the children perhaps even to provide reading enrichment programs.  Maybe some things could be rearranged in the library to create a special room for the program.  Perhaps movies could sometimes be shown in this special room as part of the after-school program.  In fact, the more the librarian thought about it, the more it seemed that caring for these children in the library might be well within the current mission of her organization. It might give her and her assistant librarians a chance to encourage reading and a love for books that would last all the children’s lives….” (Mark H. Moore, Creating Public Value: Strategic Management In Government, Page 13)


Do We Just Wash Clothes In Launderettes ?

So, it is worth thinking about where we meet with others in physical space.  Common third places and important social junctures are local independently owned shops where the news about the world is shared in casual conversation and chance meetings.  These crossroads can be found in the launderette, the garden shop, the bakery, the computer repair shop; the list is numerous…


A great example I found is that of ‘The Village Card, Gift and Balloon Shop’ in Streatham Vale.  On visiting Streatham to try and contribute to a local economic regeneration project which was started by the community after Network Rail took down a bridge into the area without informing its people that it would be happening. This effectively cut off the community – and its businesses – from all passing traffic and everyone started to suffer…



Whilst there, my role was to talk to local businesses and start to identify what the problems were being encountered, help set up a local business association (Streatham Bridge Business Association) and bring together the foundations of public events (funfair, carnival) with events producers to draw people back into the area and lift public spirits.  During the short time I was there I discovered a few places where the community congregated and shared information; these were mostly shops and pubs as the urban terrain had not been planned with a great deal else.


Streatham Vale Card Shop
An old photograph of The Village Card, Gift and Balloon Shop

I found that The Village Card, Gift and Balloon Shop was quite addictive for the social aspects it held; everyday it was interesting finding out the latest news and discovering what people were thinking.  Also it was fun as everyone had a bit of a laugh.  Jayne, who ran the shop, was a hyper-connector of people making sure that people always got the relevant information they needed about what was going on, and made sure they left with a smile on their faces.


I struggled at the time to try and document exactly how, what and why the ‘business’ was so valuable, and found that the extended effects and social impacts were in fact only really to be visible to their true extent by the people who had them rooted in their lives.


I had been asked to do social network analysis, but quickly understood that this analytic method was destructive in itself.  Thus the only way to understand was to be a part of the community. As an outsider to the regulars, I was made welcome and was incorporated into part of the collective effort in trying to restore the passing trade and lift the mood of Streatham:


“Established in 1937 this traditionally family run shop has always sold exclusive cards. We pride ourselves on being an independent store with exceptional customer service. A fantastic range of reasonably priced cards for all occasions, gifts with a free wrapping service and balloons to suit. With displays and artistry to order. Not forgetting being a major hub of the community.  The shop has been used by generations within Streatham Vale and even though it has only changed hands 3 times in its life, depending on the generation, people still call it “Cameron’s”  ……Or Duncan’s.  …….And now Jayne’s.”


This is not just a card shop, it is a place that brings people together providing countless unrevealed, unmeasurable social functions in the area. I think the best way to start to appreciate what role(s) the third place plays in communities is probably to imagine what life would be without these places and people in our lives and landscapes.  There are two illustrators which I will leave you with to help paint the picture of the importance of our third places.


The first is the famous essay of Leonard Reed’s called ‘I Pencil‘, which is well known for giving a powerful example of the interconnected nature of our world by using the example of a simple pencil.  The second example is the film ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ with James Stewart in it, which jubilantly shows the entangled natures of people’s lives in a town – as Dr Martin Luther king puts it ‘we are caught in a web of mutuality’.


It is by combining the two that I suggest we might start to understand the infinitely rich complexities which are all around us and how the loss of these third spaces is an impoverishment.  From there, we can then approach and look over the cliff edge of the loss of a species, clean environment or habitat for want of a dollar more…