On a recent visit to see my best friend in Philadelphia, we visited Grays Ferry Avenue Triangle. It’s a triangle plaza in the Southwest Center City area that didn’t exist a decade ago. Previously, it was home to a handful of parking spots, a historic but inoperative water fountain and an oddly configured side street of little use.
Local residents, including the husband-wife team of Brad Dakake and Chau Winn, came together and formulated a new vision: the creation of a community gathering spot closed to traffic and decorated with planters, painted asphalt, café tables and a bike-sharing station. The vision even includes a working water fountain. Today, the venue hosts an annual neighborhood festival called Palazapoolza, sponsored by over a dozen local business and includes activities for all ages, including live music, face painting and kids’ carnival games, and food and drinks.
The “Triangle” is an example of a “third place.” Third places are physical spaces that allow for connection beyond home (first place) and work (second place). Examples of third places include grocery stores, community parks, libraries, restaurants, entertainment venues and places of worship.
Residents love the Triangle and feel its impact. In the words of Dave Zega, chairman of the local community planning organization, South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA):
“Plazapoola brings together local residents and businesses to activate and celebrate public space. Public spaces capitalize on community assets and promote engagement, happiness and well-being. Each year, Plazapalooza allows residents of all ages to come together and enjoy the SOSNA Triangle.”
It turns out that residents living near the Triangle are not the only people who see the benefit of third places. According to a new study by the American Enterprise Institute, Americans who live close to third places are more content with their neighborhood, more trusting of others, and less lonely regardless of whether they live in large cities, suburbs or small towns.
In other words, place matters. Jane Jacobs, the celebrated urbanist and author who would celebrate her 102nd birthday this month, outlined her vision for the role and importance of creating walkable, mixed-use communities in her 1961 urban planning treatise, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. She believed such communities naturally created social cohesion and neighborliness.
In recent years, there has been explosion of mixed-use development. Dense, walkable developments are common within urban environments, of course, but are now increasingly common in the suburbs (including “sub-urbs” as some call them – connoting urban density in a suburb) and in some rural areas.
Unfortunately, creating mixed-use places, including third places, is not enough. There needs to be activation and engagement in these spaces. This happened to a high degree with the Triangle as residents literally created the space and formed a committee for its ongoing use and improvement. This is rare. In Baltimore, where I live, there has been significant development on the east side. Eager Park, a five-acre open space created a couple of years ago and developed in part by Johns Hopkins University, is beautiful but has not generated a meaningful sense of community yet. There’s more work to be done.
Creating buildings and spaces is the easy part. Creating communities is the hard part.
We’ve seen this, too. In our intergenerational apartment building, The Stories at Congressional Plaza, there are third places within the building as well as within Congressional Plaza. The building amenities include a state-of-the-art fitness room, kitchen and coffee area and great room. Congressional Plaza, located within a five-minute walk, includes a grocery store, restaurants and other retail. Collectively, these are great amenities.
These spaces are not nice but they don’t become activated on their own.
We have found the difference is when residents take ownership and agency in the utilization of these spaces. Game night. Potlucks. Knitting club. Residents get to know one another and are more likely to spread the word. We just help behind the scenes, including helping create flyers.
Engagement with third spaces is helpful at all stages of life, but they may be more important as we age as the second place (work) becomes less important or consistent. It can help avoid social isolation and loneliness, growing challenges for our society but especially as we get older. It’s important to note that third places need not be walkable but they should be accessible. A short drive of 15 minutes or less can make a huge difference.
What are your third places? Do you frequent them enough? Are they close enough?
Better yet, do you see an opportunity to create your own “Triangle”? It might just be the best thing you could do for your long term health and well-being.