• Zoning map of Austin - image by UrbanForm, in collaboration with founder Quang Truong, AIA

How third places are being reconsidered for the new millennium

Texas cities are facing a paradigm shift. Despite an impasse over the rewriting of outdated land development codes, the glacial movement toward enacting resiliency action plans, and continued conflicts of interest between arborists, stormwater management, and transportation engineers over sustainable street design, incremental, positive changes are taking place in our urban fabric, representing a glimmer of progress toward a brighter, more humane future.  

Perhaps it took living through the isolation brought on by pandemic lockdowns or witnessing the lack of a unified voice to express shared common interests and coherent reasoning during recent leadership debates, or maybe it was the rolling blackouts during the historic winter storms that have — excuse the pun — shed light on the importance of social connection as a key component of resilient and connected cities. Most of the urban forms of Texas cities are fundamentally flawed and in need of a course correction. But how did we get so far off track?

The sites of public social interaction and exchange we inhabit in the city can be described as “third places” — a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg — as distinct from home and work (our first and second places, respectively). Third places are shared spaces within the built environment where people of varying demographics, income levels, backgrounds, and perspectives cross paths with little or no barrier to entry, including cost. 

At one time, the presence of locally owned third places like diners, ice cream parlors, and barber shops (so-called “mom-and-pop” stores) were a defining characteristic of most Texas neighborhoods. However, since the inception of divisive zoning ordinances in Texas, residential, commercial, and industrial land uses have largely been segregated into distinct urban zones, destroying many mixed-use neighborhoods in the process. 

Land designated for residential use comprises the largest occupied area of a city and greatly defines a city’s urban form. Fueled by economic and population growth, combined with a rise in individual car ownership and the establishment of the Interstate Highway System, residential subdivisions have been platted further and further from city centers in a succession of suburbs and exurbs. The place “where everybody knows your name” is anecdotally familiar; however, relentless centrifugal sprawl is the predominant urban form that has been realized in Texas cities. Top-down regulatory tools, along with often-archaic and discriminatory deed restrictions defining urban form, have had  the long-term effect of eroding the vitality of authentic third places and degrading the character of civic life in neighborhoods. 

A resident of New Territory, Pflugerville, or Frisco on a singular foray into the nearby public realm may traverse a truncated cul-de-sac, schlepp alongside the edge of a deserted  neighborhood collector street with no sidewalk, navigate across lanes of heavy vehicular traffic, and endure the olfactory hostility of an arterial commercial strip, weaving through acres of impervious asphalt — all to pick up a bottle of milk. Let’s face it; it’s a less-than-ideal urban experience.    

In the seminal book “Ladders,” Albert Pope, founding director of the Present Future think tank at the Rice University School of Architecture, refers to these drosscapes as the unseen city, a low-density “cordon sanitaire” of voids, designed to isolate and disconnect, and tenuously tethered together by the idea of the central big-city shape.

Ironically, this decades-old urban development model was supposed to protect the health and welfare of citizens by improving access to clean, unpolluted air; however, the legacy of its urban form is the single biggest contributor to car usage and, subsequently, air-polluting carbon emissions, with 72 percent of all car trips being taken to run quick errands or meet friends. Transformational change often requires a market force, and thankfully an emerging generation of homebuyers is expressing its preference for denser, walkable communities where residents can live in a more environmentally sensitive way and feel connected to their neighbors — and they are willing to pay more for it. 

So Let’s Walk Instead 

In the Southtown neighborhood of San Antonio, at the recently completed Clay Street residential development, the developer StoryBuilt took a risk supported by its belief that new buyers would value their living experience more than their cars. They took advantage of the incentive  to build more densely and designed a development that would support 16 single-family units on a single acre. Buyers were offered the option of a unit with front driveways and private side and rear yards or a communal garden unit with access to a remote parking area, meaning those residents would have to walk from their cars through a shared garden space to get to their homes. “The risk paid off, and the garden units sold first!” says Kristen Padavic, AIA, managing principal of Padevic Design and former senior vice president of design with StoryBuilt. 

In Austin, the highly successful Mueller and Domain developments were designed with a mix of home types and a variety of nearby amenities, including shared park space and small to medium commercial retail and office enterprises, resulting in a dynamic urban form. The activation of the neighborhood puts eyes on the street, making it feel safe enough for the kids who will grow up there to have some independence to roam unsupervised — something that perhaps those over age 45 might remember from their childhoods but that the majority of those under 15 know nothing about. 

The innovative approaches to contemporary urban design adopted by these projects require a major deviation from the current land development code, often calling for entirely alternative and unique land-use designations. A zoning change application can be a lengthy and costly process that is out of reach for small businesses simply looking to set up shop and get going, the impacts of which have far-reaching economic ramifications.

“As a young practice we struggled to find a small office space in the neighborhood,” says Lucy Begg, AIA, co-director of Thoughtbarn. “We wanted to live close by to where we worked but could not find any available commercially zoned spaces nearby.” Begg and her partner  searched for a number of years before an existing 6,000-sf space became available in a pocket of commercially zoned buildings that were “grandfathered in” to their historic East Austin neighborhood. 

Historic Inspiration and Missteps

The urban form of East Austin predates the implementation of zoning; its open and permeable street network is a continuation of the downtown grid, punctuated by pockets of commercial retail, light office, civic, light industrial, and public recreational uses, with residential dwellings in between, positioned a stone’s throw away from the sidewalk.

In 1928, the city of Austin adopted its comprehensive city plan for the establishment of a “modern and efficient city.” With inherently racist and classist motives for creating a singular segregated African American district, the masterplan sought to relocate African American families scattered across the city to the existing east end, where a significant African American community had already established a vibrant neighborhood anchored by beloved third places.

On an afternoon jaunt over to Ben’s BBQ, the Chuck Wagon, or the Southern Dinette on 11th Street, where there was always a warm welcome, several spontaneous interactions with fellow patrons and neighbors would contribute to the lifeblood of a strong, vibrant, and connected community. The trolley that ran across downtown Austin into the Chestnut neighborhood took you as far as 12th and Chicon, where “one could find … the Harlem movie theatre, Phelp’s Dry Cleaners, the red and white food Market, Lee’s shoe shop, Talley’s Newsstand, Yates Drug store & Ice Cream Parlor, Marshall’s and Galloway’s Barber shops and a cab stand. Scattered throughout the neighborhood were other small businesses such as Hudspeth’s Corner and Breedlove’s Groceries, Miss Sue’s Beauty Shop, Galloway’s Cleaners, Lyon’s Cafe, Dr. Givens dental practice, Uncle June’s Barbecue and Aunt Scrap’s Kitchen,” as noted in the  “History of Austin’s Chestnut Neighborhood.”  These popular locally owned businesses benefited from the continuous visitation and neighborly patronage that the flexibility of routes and the open, walkable street grid allowed. Such regularly occurring and compounding simple interactions create a shared sense of belonging that fosters collaboration between individuals and relationships of mutual support, establishing a meaningful and significant foundation for a thriving community built organically and incrementally over time.

Smart Programming 

At the north end of Austin’s M.M. Shipe streetcar route, the trolley would traverse the historic suburb of Hyde Park, its street form also gridded and remaining subordinate to the city. A natural pocket of commercial buildings would emerge out of this terminus point where the trolley crossed 43rd Street at Speedway Avenue before returning south to downtown. 

Today that cluster of commercial buildings remains, a historic designation of land use at the center of the affluent residential neighborhood made walkable and all the more desirable by its presence. Among these buildings are a small grocery store, a Pilates studio, and the Blue Moon Glassworks studio, with its modest offerings of classes in jewelry making, sewing, and glass arts. The largest of the structures — formerly a much-loved and frequented neighborhood post office — is now the First Light Book Shop, a recently completed commercial interior fitout and renovation by Thoughtbarn, in collaboration with interior designer Ann Edgerton.

Its bright interior is lit by skylights and serves a broad demographic of patrons, including the smallest of clientele who sit for story hour, one of the bookstore’s many events open to the public and free of charge. Appropriately sized chairs populate the children’s area. Inside the bookstore is a small coffee and snack counter. Neighborhood patrons come and go, occasionally pausing to share with the baristas their version of how they miss the old post office but are glad the building has been given a new lease on life. 

The Third Space

We thrive on human connection. It’s a notion we’ve long believed but that is now substantiated by reports from the medical community, which outline the positive impact of interaction with fellow community members on individual health and wellness, in contrast to the negative impacts of social isolation, which is on par with — and in some cases surpasses — clinical health and diet in terms of its effects on individual happiness and longevity. 

Homogenized streetscapes are places for profit and not for people, favoring the car and the commodification of real estate. Low-density developments diffuse any possibility of activation of the public realm, preventing neighborhood evolution and prioritizing the perceived benefit of private property ownership over the value of a healthy society.

In May 2023, Austin City Council voted to eliminate minimum parking requirements from the city’s land use regulations. This incremental change will go some way to overcoming the site planning constraints small business owners face when considering the development of small parcels of vacant commercial use land. Of course, without accommodation for cars, small business clientele will need to arrive either on foot, by bike, or via some form of public transportation.

What third places rely on for success is continued access and connection, which, if not supported through a city’s built form, will find other ways to emerge. The apparent substitutes for daily social interaction brought on by the decline of physical spaces have tipped increasingly toward the virtual, a situation ushering in its own wave of societal ills. 

New Ways to Think About Zoning

Both Laredo and Bastrop have decisively opted for a return to the efficiency of the open and connected grid network that can adapt to changing modes of transportation. This approach prioritizes land resource conservation by applying a non-Euclidian urban planning policy that accommodates a mixture of uses at a walkable scale in hopes of generating economically resilient and vibrant neighborhoods.

For some communities, the resultant public spaces may become a natural point of refuge in the event of severe weather conditions or a neutral venue for public meetings to discuss important local issues — a form of civic engagement that builds trust and strengthens the foundation of the democratic process.

So how do we begin to retroactively define pockets of activated, walkable public space within the social deserts of the suburbs and exurbs? How do we provide third place destinations within a four- to six-mile radius of existing single-family homes and evolve them into sustainably accessible neighborhoods that prioritize the well-being of individuals and society at large and inject a little civic life back into the sprawl? Perhaps we start by looking at a study of frequently traveled routes to identify an appropriate corner lot where a public use could benefit the greater community.

Can the existing void of the 25-foot setback be breached to engage the passerby? For current homeowners, there is a fear of encroachment on the surrounding homes; however, the benefits would far outweigh the disadvantages. Small-scale, walkable local destinations rarely create regional draw outside of the neighborhood catchment area. Part of Texas cities’ smart growth has become a re-evaluation of urban planning strategies, acknowledging the need to strike a balance between the convenience of car travel and the benefits of walkability, which promotes healthier, more vibrant, and economically sustainable communities by creating the conditions for third places to organically emerge. 

Nkiru Gelles, AIA, is an architect at Low Design Office and a design commissioner for District 3 in Austin.

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