Views expressed are that of the writer. Lead illustration by Georgia Semple.
Think about some of your favourite spots where you can relax, bond, and simply be. Away from the responsibilities of the workplace and outside the privacy of our homes, it might be a cozy coffee shop to gather with friends like Central Perk or a local pub like Eastenders’ The Queen Victoria.
Wherever it might be, these spaces are essential for both individuals and communities – welcoming and inclusive places to connect with old faces and meet new ones, with no restrictions based on financial or social status.
Originally coined by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg in 1989, the term ‘third place’ refers to spaces outside of the home (first) and workplace (second) that foster community and conversation. These can be commercial settings like gyms or cafés, or free spaces such as parks, libraries and community centres.
As humans, the need to connect is integral to our happiness. We rely on the various communities around us – friends, family, colleagues, lovers – for support and to feel a sense of place in the world.
A world without them is difficult to navigate – as highlighted by the recent pandemic – which shut us off from our support networks that help us to cope with such difficult moments. Cooped up in our homes throughout 2020 and most of 2021, the ability to connect outside of our regular circles was also limited – as most of the spaces for this kind of interaction, known as third places, were forced to close to prevent the spread of the virus.
While the pandemic exacerbated the need for such spaces and highlighted the negative impacts without them, research from 2019 suggests that they’ve been on the decline for years. In the UK alone, a fifth (over 800) libraries have closed in the past decade due to public spending cuts, with leisure and community centres similarly impacted. With these spaces becoming more difficult to find, people are unsurprisingly feeling increasingly lonely – the long-term consequences of this potentially causing eating disorders, suicidal ideation, and extremism. It’s concerning, especially given that one in two Millennials and Gen Z reported feeling regularly feeling lonely – a figure much higher than other generations.
“Third places such as community centres and gardens must be viewed as essential spaces for the wellbeing of society,” says Valerie Goode, founder of Coco Collective’s Ital Community Garden. Founded in the summer of 2021, the south London-based community garden, which takes its name from the Rastafarian term for a plant-based lifestyle, started as a way for Afro-diaspora to connect with their roots through growing heritage foods like scotch bonnets and okra. “These spaces are the backbone of the community and should be properly funded as such.”
The beauty of garden spaces is that they are healing and enjoyable; not just in consuming better food, but the physical and mental wellbeing that also comes from it,” she adds. As the community has grown, so has the garden’s offering, not only helping the community connect with one another, but also facilitating events that span music, film, and mental health too.
Barcelona-based Periferia Cimarronas was born out of a similar need to connect the overlooked queer and Afro-descendant communities in the city. The multi-purpose space has a theatre for staging productions as well as a shop and bar for socialising, all with the aim to “investigate and create stories that show the diversity that exists in Spain and fight against stereotypes,” says Silvia Albert Sopale, one of the space’s founders. “There are many people who consider this space their home and we’ve also generated a great movement in other communities, including people from Latina and Asian descent.”
For marginalised groups, third places are increasingly important, as they are sometimes the only safe space for LGBTQ+ people to exist authentically. A survey published this year revealed that 14% of the community felt that they couldn’t be themselves in the workplace, with young gay men the most likely (31%) to hide their sexuality. Focusing on building platonic relationships, rather than romantic or sexual encounters, LGBTQ+ centres such as The Ledward Centre are becoming increasingly limited and can often be targeted in places that need them the most, as was the case with LGBT+ Rights Ghana.
“Generic spaces such as community centres are not as useful for LGBTQ+ people, due to different life experiences and cultural references from the majority of attendees, which can lead to having to withdraw back into the closet,” says Chris Gull, director of Brighton’s first LGBTQ+ community centre. The space, which opened last year, keeps the community’s specific needs in mind, offering trans and non-binary people private changing areas, so they can change into affirming clothing they don’t feel safe wearing elsewhere. There’s also a café and lounge, community kitchen and exhibition gallery to promote queer culture and history, as well other rooms that can be used for classes, performances, and group meetings.
“As a community, we face discrimination, verbal abuse, domestic abuse, homophobic and transphobic hate crimes, breakdowns in family support, and disproportionate levels of loneliness and social isolation which all have negative effects on our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing,” Gull adds on the necessity of third places for marginalised groups. “Having a safe, social, sober space allows LGBTQ+ people to meet others with shared life experiences and form supportive friendships.”
While there can be difficulties in maintaining these spaces – gentrification and commercialisation often forcing smaller, independent businesses out of popular areas – due to the pandemic a hybrid third place began to emerge, combining both digital and physical experiences. Emulating the concept of a French salon, groups such as InterIntellect and The Stoa use digital calls for workshops, talks and debates that are globally inclusive, as well as organising meet-ups in various public locations that offer the benefits that virtual third spaces can’t provide.
The importance of preserving third places and their overwhelmingly positive impact on community is stressed by their founders. “The excitement of hearing people discover that there is an Afro-diaspora-led community garden in Lewisham fills me with so much hope and joy,” says Goode, reflecting on the feedback she’s received from the community garden. “Seeing people who have come to our mental wellbeing workshops improve their confidence and sense of identity is also satisfying.”
“It’s rewarding to be making a real difference in the lives of so many people and to see them thriving after finding their ‘tribe’ – whichever niche of the diverse LGBTQ+ community that is,” Gull echoes.
Inspired to launch your own third place? Perhaps a book club, dance troupe, volunteer space, or something else that is niche, but overlooked. “Just do it! It’s likely a much-needed resource in your community,” offers Goode as advice on where to start. “Have an angle that resonates with people as sourcing and retaining volunteers can present its challenges. Simply: be good, do good, and people will follow.”