“Where Are They?” Do We Think of Third Places When We Make Decisions?

    Cover of issue 171 about Third Places“No community should be without these kinds of spaces. Therefore, when we think about planning or revitalization efforts or development, we [should be] saying, ‘Where are they?’, because it’s that important.” —Neeraj Mehta

    “Maybe [cities] ought to have ‘no net loss’ policies for third spaces, kind of like [they do for] wetlands.” —Chuck Wolfe


    There were so many really exciting stories about particular places, from farmers’ markets to parks to restaurants, that emerged in Where Community Is at Work Making Itself, our Shelterforce roundtable on third places.

    But I keep coming back to the two quotes above. To be concerned with the health of a community is necessarily to be concerned with the health of its gathering places —that is where the connections that make it a community are formed and fostered and transferred into collective action. And so rather than a luxury, or merely an organizing tool to get people interested, we could say they should be at the heart of neighborhood transformation.

    Of course this can feel like adding yet another number-one priority to already full plates.

    And as soon as you add it, you have to bring in the question of equity as well—even more so than developing affordable housing, successfully creating vibrant community gathering spots, often now known as “creative placemaking,” increases a neighborhood’s attractiveness to those people with choices. This is of course, not a bad thing, unless it pushes longtime residents out. Or even before that, unless it decreases longtime residents’ access to and participation in the shaping and programming of those spaces, leading to a kind of segregation within a nominally integrated community.

    I’d like to think that the conversation about permanent affordability that has been happening on the housing side has prepped us to more quickly move to thinking about inclusion and long-term ownership and accessibility for third places in our communities. But the tools are going to be very different.

    If you know of any community organizations tackling this question in an in-depth way (or even just starting to face the challenge), let us know in the comments.

    Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


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