Public Spaces, Issue 55

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term  “Third Place” in 1989. He defined home as the First Place and “the office / factory floor/ etc” the Second Place. Oldenburg’s Third Places were neither home space nor work space.

Boundaries between work, home, and play fade

Since 1989, information and communication technologies have helped fade the boundaries between the three. 

  • Work-from-home options became more feasible
  • Do you want out of the office for an hour or two? Pick up the lap top and head to the coffee shop. Even before the technology revolution, I worked for a man who did his best work sitting in a tavern. As long as there were lots of paper placemats for writing!
  • Shared work-spaces à la WeWork grew in popularity. Part social club, part office!
  • For many, homes in the city meant smaller and apartments and condo units. Many of these units are no better than big hotel rooms. Quickly, bars and restaurants became extensions to home. 
Ouf! Where is the nearest park? Get me outta here!

Coronavirus accelerates the boundary erosion

And, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the erosion of the boundaries between work place, home, and public space. 

  • Office closures accelerated the work-at-home trend. Employers and employees have found that working from home at least part of the time does not effect productivity.
  • Parks and other open spaces became extensions of our homes …. and our work places.
  • Employers looking for geographically dispersed-work space options and work space flexibility are exploring shared-space options. As are home workers confined to tiny apartments. 
  • Small apartment units became prison cells – the park and the street the only escape zones.  

So, I think the term “Third Place”  has lost its usefulness and clutters up the conversation about the growing need for great Public Spaces. 

Coffee shop in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, across the Douro from Porto – place to live, work, and play

The need for great public spaces

  • Has your city park network ever been more important or more active? 
  • Do you miss museums, libraries, theatres, or going to the movies? How much TV streaming can anyone stand?
  • The popularity of sidewalk dining has taken off. Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops / cafés occupy more and more street and sidewalk space. Many cities are considering making the temporary Covid-19 allowances permanent. 
  • Summer-time street closures have been popular additions to city inventories of gathering places. During the pandemic, Montréal has added thirteen pedestrianized streets  to its usual inventory of its car free areas. The longest stretch. The Avenue Mont-Royal 2.3 km closure  is between St-Laurent and Fullum has proven particularly popular. 
Top five pedestrianized streets according to Capitaine Montréal. Video in French but, I am a real Montrealer and like mixing it up.

What makes good public space?

  1. Public space should be free or cheap. London museums open their general exhibitions free of charge. There is no fee to sit in Dorchester Square, Hyde Park, or Central Park or to walk on Mont Royal Avenue in the evening. 
  2. Easily accessible, and not by car. We should be able to walk , bike , or use great public transit to get to the park we like or go to a neighbourhood restaurant. 
  3. There are regulars. These could include someone nursing a glass of red hiding behind the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times; the panhandler who always has a smile and a joke; or, just someone you talk to everyday without any expectations of more.
  4. The availability of food and drinks which can come from a terrasse or a café; a food truck or kiosk; or, full service restaurants. 
  5. Places to meet friends, both old and new. It is so nice to walk with people that you like and love, peeking into store windows or ducking into a favourite restaurant for lunch. 
  6. The spaces have to be welcoming and comfortable. One of my favourite hobby horses to ride: invest in public washrooms. For outdoor spaces, think trees, plants, and lots of greenery. 

I know that I covered much of this territory in Issue 51 which was inspired by the battle over Chinatown. I had wanted to make the point that sometimes unique neighbourhoods are great public spaces deserving protection. 

This issue is more about establishing the need to add  great public spaces to urban inventories. 

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