Third place, besides meaning the third-best finisher in a contest, is a term used by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his book "The Great Good Place" (first printed in 1989) . A person's "first place" would be hir home, and the "second place" would be hir place of work - and the third place is somewhere in the neighborhood where people meet, interact, hang out, and such. A place, whether a business, park, or plaza where members of the community meet with each other, a place that gives the local area the sense of community.

A third place may also be known as a "social condenser". It's not some chain restaurant or coffee shop, but a local place, something unique to the area, where people aren't just customers to the people who own/run the place, but regulars, or even friends. A third place isn't just interested in making money - but in building a social network.

It also has to be easily and quickly accessible to the members of the community - within walking distance, and without rules or prices that prevent people from enjoying themselves, socializing, discussing issues, relaxing, and the like. For example, how likely is it the neighborhood McDonald's would allow a group of people to sit for three hours, sipping on coffee or pop, talking loudly and joking?

Oldenburg mentions in his book that the surburban lifestyle growing in America in other parts of the world due to the continuing urban sprawl creates an environment where there are no third places. There's simply nowhere to put them when you have large areas of residential zoning in one place, and commercial zoning in another, with no overlap, and huge busy roads and no sidewalks to connect them. Harvard professor Robert Putnam discusses the same situation in his book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community".

The dividing point in time, according to Oldenburg, was World War II. After the war, America started focusing on urban renewal, huge freeway projects, and the zoning procedures resulting in seperating residential from commercial areas - the idea of "single-use zoning", in contrast to older areas of the cities, where you'll find buildings with stores on the ground floor, and apartments above.

What is missing with the decline of the third place? Anyone who's lived in a suburb can relate to the relative isolation that one can find in a neighboor hood with cookie cutter houses all in a line, in an apartment complex the size of a small town, where there's no place to "hang out" after work other than home, because every restaurant, every coffee house, ever bar is geared toward profit, and the staff changes so often you couldn't stay friends with them if you wanted, and they're all in big commercial areas, with so many choices, and so many people, there's no connection to any of them.

Also, the lack of true community feeling may contribute to the lack of feeling like you belong, where you may no longer care about the issues. Some even suggest that grass-roots democracy and civil society are both becoming victims of the lack of third places. It becomes hard to care about others when your only time ever interacting with someone is isolated in impersonal metal beasts, and the area looks like any other in the country, sterile and conformist.

Oldenburg's idea has been noticed by many, and may be gaining some visibility and importance. It has become part of many college courses on sociology, and he's talked quite a few times with the press about them. Establishments are popping up in various neighboorhoods, sometimes using the term in their name. Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington, for example, has tried to become so much more than just a bookstore. It has a food court, a stage with fancy lighting, and even a giant chessboard, all in the name of creating a place worth spending time at, and not just being a consumer at. And it seems to be working, as community groups have been scheduling meetings there, plenty of people have become regulars, and the bookstore even had Jesse Ventura as a speaker.

The question is whether they will ever be able to become as important as they once were. Zoning laws continue to move toward single-use zoning, as businesses lobby for the huge roads to carry enough people to justify the superstores, and the financial benefits to the bulk buying and minimum wage employees of corporate mega-chains may keep the neighborhood places from growing truly popular again. Also, even some of the chains are trying to take the third place idea, and use it - the chief executive of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, tries to plug the chain stores as "third place"s. (Though having been to one, it hardly qualifies)

Common Wealth - "The 'Third Place' Way" - by Chris Mooney,
What is a "Third Place" and Why Are They Important?,