Third Places: What is a third place, and why is it important?

Published by: Jennifer Hetzel | Published on: 08 Feb, 2018
Third Places: What is a third place, and why is it important?

Published in the Greater Killeen Business Quarterly 2017 Annual Report & Economic Outlook Guide

In a way, we’ve always had third places. Third places are simply places where we spend time when we are not at home and not working.

Today, however, third places take on a much larger role in our lives and, subsequently, in defining our places. They are no longer only casual recreational spots or activities; they have become an incorporated part of our overall lifestyle. In that regard we need to recognize that, for some, especially those in the creative class, third places have actually become a non-negotiable asset. They define the concept of place every bit as much as the availability of meaningful employment and comfortable housing, if not more so.

Third places are also somewhat unique in the concept of place development because they cross the generations a great deal more than other place characteristics. Communities are just as significantly impacted by senior centers and active retirement communities as they are by hike and bike trails and access to entertainment facilities.

But what has really made third places significant in today’s world is the extent to which they have incorporated themselves into the everyday lifestyle of the creative class. A generation ago, an avid skier, for example, would relish a job opportunity which put them an hour or so away from the slopes. Today, an avid skier of the creative class doesn’t relish such an opportunity, they demand it. An opportunity without access to a ski resort nearby is, to them, no opportunity whatsoever. To that avid skier, their access to that third place directly impacts their ability to have an enjoyable and totally fulfilling life.

Once you begin to understand these aspects of third places – that they have not only become engrained as part of our lifestyles, but have become significant aspects of living a fulfilled life – you begin to understand how important they have become in the establishment of the concept of place. A community that does not – or will not – recognize this does so at their own peril, because they are limiting the influx of talent that will drive their own economic prosperity.

Characteristics of third places

This sounds easy. All we need to do is give folks things to do in our community, right?

Nothing could be further from the truth. At the same time, the truth is not that far away.

Remember that place development involves planning a place that draws the kind of creative and innovative workforce that fills the community’s needs in becoming an economically prosperous community. To use a fishing analogy, if you want to catch bass, you may use a minnow; a bait shrimp will more likely get you a yellow catfish.

Let’s look at some basic characteristic of third places.

1. Third Places represent a personal experience.

People have a variety of third place needs that must be fulfilled. More is better, and variety acts as a multiplier that enhances the community’s image as a desirable place. Third places are personal, but not necessarily on an individual basis. It’s the third place experience that is personalized, and that requires a variety of options.

2. Third Places fulfill an individual need.
Sometimes that need is social interaction. Sometimes that need is creative. At other times, it may revolve around personal well- being. It may be a need to perform or just a need to unwind. More often than not, it fulfills a variety of the above, plus others.

3. Third Places take us away from home and work, yet they are as important as either of those for defining who we are and what we do.
More than any other characteristic, this describes the difference between the importance of third places today compared to a generation ago. We allow our third places to define us today. A generation ago, Joe was “the accountant on the third floor.” Today, Joe is “the guy who is president of the local Harley club.”

4. Third Places are personally functional to us.
What does that mean? We need what our third place experiences give to us. If we enjoy the freedom of bicycling and hiking, it is likely that the fitness benefits we enjoy as a result are very important to us. If we enjoy playing in a blues band, the creative performance outlet is something we personally need. Remember, we said that the role of third places in defining the desirability of place has become nonnegotiable? This is why.

5. Third Places are there when we need them.
A simple statement with huge implications. As schedules become less important – and constraining – “on demand” third place experiences become proportionally more important.

When you look at these five characteristics of third places in light of the fishing analogy, it becomes apparent that the active design of third places is an important aspect of social engineering when it comes to planning the community we want to develop. In many ways, as we look at our community and plan the third places we want to develop, we are choosing the “bait” we will cast to “catch” the talented and creative workforce seek.

This article is the third in a series of White Papers previously released by the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce. The content in these papers is based on research by chamber staff and the chamber’s Place Design Team. This article is an abbreviated version of the full papers, which can be viewed at