The Power of [the Third] Place

Take a look at a typical American lifestyle. What do you see? For most of us we have two very distinct things in common: first, we have a home life complete with family, need for security and all the formal responsibilities that entails; second, we have a work life complete with coworkers, performance requirements and all the formal responsibility that entails. And on many days our life is made up exclusively of these two destinations and their associated responsibilities: home then work; work then home. But there comes a point, for sanity’s sake, when a person needs to break up the monotony; have a little break from the pressures and responsibility of everyday life.

thebridge_001a.jpg[Above: a view across the main level of the Bridge Hub offers a glimpse at Studio | BRiNK’s strategies for highly effective third place community design. Read on to find out more.]

This isn’t a new concept, in fact the idea of having an alternative place to spend one’s time is centuries old. Most of us in modern society probably take these places for granted as we grew up having them at our disposal. What we may not realize is that these alternative places, or third places as they are often called, have a huge value not only to our community but to each of our personal lives. And the ambiance and functionality of these third spaces is crucial to attract users and make them successful.


Identifying the Third Place.

By definition, the third place is an informal gathering place that is both welcoming and comfortable. Ideally it would be highly accessible by both car and on foot. While not essential, many third places serve a form of food or drink and are typically free or inexpensive to congregate at. In American society your third place takes the form of a coffee shop, pub, student union or bookstore to name a few.

TheBridge_010.jpg[Above: A combination of lounge and perch spaces offer comfortable amenities to a variety of third place users.]


The Value of the Third.

Now, a GREAT third place offers you something you cannot get at work or home. It provides flexibility to come, go and stay as you please because it understands your mandatory appearances elsewhere are not always under your control. It offers you access to a more diverse population; a larger cross section of your community than you would typically find at work or home.

If you are a people person, a third place offers you a chance to socialize and collaborate. If you’re a retiree or work from home it gives you a destination place to establish a routine or simply get out of your house. And the third place continues to grow in value as our understanding of socialization increases.  Studies on social relationships find that community connections affect mental and physical health as well as mortality. In fact, the risk of death in people with the fewest social ties is found to be more than twice as high as those with the most social ties [4]. Makes you want to find a few more friends, doesn’t it?

thebridge_007.jpg[Above: semi-private and private spaces at the Hub offer users an opportunity to focus on quieter tasks. Design by Studio | BRiNK]

Inversely, if you need to focus a third place offers you a place to hide out; where you can sit in a corner and concentrate.  If you need to escape it offers you sanctuary to assume anonymity. And if you need to meet someone for the first time, a third place offers you a sense of social safety on neutral ground and outside of your private spaces.

Whether you are seeking out a place to be authentically you or to escape being you all together, the third place is really yours to make of it what you wish. The experience is as varied and unique as the individual. So really the power of the third place is that it has the potential to appeal to everyone; no matter who they are or where they come from.


Lure a Crowd.

Knowing that every patron is likely looking for their own set of place characteristics, how do you design your third place to reach the masses? How can your social gathering space cast a wide net and grab more of the community? Using our Bridge Hub community center project as a case study for implementation, we’re outlining how good design can help you lure a crowd. Here are some of our top tips for third place design.

1. Flexibility

The best way to attract a crowd with diverse needs to provide a space flexible enough to accommodate that diversity. Offering a variety of space types from public to private will allow for both collaborative groups and individual users to find something that suits them.

side by side[Above: Providing both public and private spaces at the Hub offer users the flexibility to use the space for more social or more focused tasks.]

An effective way to separate private spaces from the more public is to use high-backed furniture or half-height walls. Research shows that focused-task users feel an, “element of protection when sitting against a wall” [5] thus improving their desire to stay in and return to that space. Additionally a variety of table sizes and seating groups will allow you to accommodate different patron group sizes.

2. Ownership

Longtime supporter of the third place Ray Oldenburg notes, “Our human experiences are enhanced by increasing the directness of our involvement…” [2]. People become invested in place when they can participate or have a sense of ownership in some fashion. The more they feel personally involved, the more likely they are to frequent the space.

A great way to impart ownership to your user is to give them not only the flexibility but the freedom to adjust their surroundings to meet their needs. Perhaps they can pull tables apart or push them together to accommodate their group size. You can also provide them with modular lounge pieces designed to be rearranged in a variety of ways yet still fit together.

thebridge_012-e1501164571703.jpg[Above: Providing movable seating options that accommodate large and small groups contribute to a space that is both highly flexible and adjustable for the user.]

You can also design specific elements into your space to dedicate to the community. Wall space to feature local artist pieces or tackable space for neighborhood fliers are easy and popular design solutions.

3. Creature Comforts

We’ve already established that the allure of the third place is that it gives you something different than what you would find at work or home. However, a great third place also offers patrons some of the comforts you would typically find at work or home. These are an added bonus that will ensure user attachment to your space.

The most important thing to provide is amenities; guests should have everything they need to do what they came to your establishment to do. If they have focused tasks they need adequate lighting and sound mitigation. The tech savvy will need ample access to outlets or plugins while the untechnical may be more concerned with a physical writing surface. And if they are staying a while, your guests will seek out larger scale upholstered furniture; while those lesser lingerers will find a smaller scale seat to perch.

4. Ambiance

“It’s through the five senses—sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch—that humans perceive the world [3]. A recent study by furniture giant, Steelcase, notes design that appeals to the senses, or “turns them on,” actually improves concentration and exchange of information. So for the collaborator and the focused taskmaster alike, creating a specific ambiance will make your third place memorable on a complete sensory level.

TheBridge_008.jpg[Above: A double sided fireplace, wall mounted speakers and aromas of brewing coffee enhance the ambiance at the Hub.]

A great way to bring in that ambiance is with music or pleasing aromas. Plan for speakers and appropriate acoustical treatments as part of your interior design budget. Design your ventilation systems to keep desirable smells in and non-desirable smells out. And one of our favorite techniques, especially for those Midwestern winters, is the implementation of a fireplace at key focal points.


PHOTOGRAPHY: Dan Schwalm Photo


[1] McCunn, L. J. (2014, June 13) Environmental Psychology and the Coffee Shop. Psychology Today Blog. Retrieved from:
[2] Oldenburg, R. (1999). The Great Good Place. New York: Marlowe & Company.
[3] Steelcase Inc. (2017). Engaging the Five Senses. Retrieved from:
[4] Umberson, D. and Montez, J. K. (2010). Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51, 54-66.
[5] Waxman, L. (2006). The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical factors Influencing Place Attachment. Journal of Interior Design, 31, 35-53.

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