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    The lively Texas Farmers’ Market at Mueller brings together Austinites from across the city. - photo by Leonid Furmansky

The concept of “third places” was one our TxA Publications Committee latched onto early and enthusiastically in our planning for this new year. Though introduced by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book “The Great Good Place,” the term was new for some committee members, and a concept that clearly resonated at an essential level. It describes the public spaces we inhabit together as a community, distinct from our first places (home) and second places (work). Third places are on the decline for a variety of reasons ranging from increasing privatization and automobile-centric urban planning to the relatively new digital landscape we inhabit — not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic that collapsed not only our third places but our second places, too, as our homes suddenly had to accommodate all things live-work-play. Considering our current landscape, it is apparent that we not only need community but that we are desperate for it. 

A U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory entitled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” was published earlier this year. It states: “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling — it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity. And the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished.” Similarly, an 85-year study by Harvard researchers found that the number one determinant of a happy life — which in turn helps us to live longer too — is “social fitness,” or the number of positive relationships that we each have.

Somewhat ironically, the corporate world has already picked up on the importance of these third places, not only to human health and happiness, but to productivity and innovation as well — indicators that typically correlate with a positive impact on a business’s bottom line. It has now become a standard for many businesses to include spaces like a coffee bar or casual seating in the workplace to get people talking to each other, encouraging chance encounters and an exchange of ideas along the way. While these amenities are valuable to workers and businesses alike, it’s important to understand that these places are not substitutes for the third places that make up our cities and broader communities. Nor is social media a substitute. By definition, third places present the opportunity for us all to encounter and interact with those who are different from us. They help us to forge relationships with and build trust among our neighbors, who otherwise would remain strangers to most of us. Knowing our neighbors also helps to build more resilient communities: Following disasters, it is typically unofficial, local aid that arrives first. These precious third places provide a forum for thoughtful face-to-face dialogue with those who hold differing opinions from our own and, in the process, foster an atmosphere of respect not typically found in the anonymity of an online platform.

We all must advocate for and actively create these places we so sorely need. And the best part is, it can be accomplished in fun and creative ways. Ray Oldenburg turned his two-car garage into a bar for the neighborhood, with regular hours of operation on Wednesdays and Sundays. In my own life, my yard — one of the only fenced yards in the neighborhood — has become the informal neighborhood dog park. More than once I’ve heard a commotion outside my front door, opening it to find a neighbor dog, sans owner, excitedly waiting to be let in to play. It surfaces memories from the not-too-distant past, in the era before cell phones, when friends would knock on my door unannounced for a cup of coffee or with an invitation to join in an activity. And the alternative? As the Surgeon General warns: “If we fail to do so, we will pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being. And we will continue to splinter and divide until we can no longer stand as a community or a country. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will further retreat to our corners — angry, sick, and alone.” I know that I, for one, vote for neighborhood garage bars and informal dog parks.

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