How third places promote cohesion
Cohesive neighborhoods are safe neighborhoods. A sense of belonging and connectedness increases the likelihood that neighbors will look out for each other and take action when problems arise. This could involve organizing to garner resources through the local polity, or simply being “eyes on the street.” This idea is supported by criminological theory and decades of empirical research. In an era marked by both divisive politics and pushes to reimagine what public safety means and how it can be realized, efforts to reduce crime and promote community well-being by increasing cohesion are worth consideration.
What makes a neighborhood cohesive? Scholars traditionally look at how various configurations of race-ethnicity, class and other demographic characteristics among residents contribute to more or less interaction and cohesion. The general finding is that stable neighborhoods where residents are similar on these dynamics are the most cohesive. But beyond the characteristics of residents, places themselves actively shape the opportunity for neighbors to interact and for cohesion to develop.
There’s something comforting about being able to circuit among watering holes, barbershops and playgrounds in a neighborhood. These places are “third places.” In contrast to home and work (first and second places), sociologist Ray Oldenburg has proposed third places as those that host “the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”
Third places serve a variety of functions. For individuals, they provide a setting outside of home and work to relax, blow off steam, have casual conversations and simply enjoy the company of others.
A dive bar was a “port of entry” when I moved into a new neighborhood. It socialized me into the community and helped link me to other places and spaces in the city. For communities and society more broadly, Oldenburg sees third places as essential to the healthy functioning of democracy, conducive to civic engagement and grassroots organizing, key to the development of cohesion and a sense of community, and integral to public safety through more informal means.
To simply share a space with others outside of the hierarchy of work and the intimacy of inner circles is to humanize them.
Some argue for the declining significance of place in contemporary society: Social media is the new public square for interacting, organizing and debating. But if you spend any time at all on the internet, you are familiar with the often vitriolic discourse that people of differing ideologies engage in, enabled by the anonymity and distance of online platforms. Third places bring humans face-to-face, and in doing so, function as “social levelers.” The person behind me in line at a bodega who strikes up a conversation may identify differently than me in terms of race, class, gender, political ideology, religion and so on, but here it matters less. We both like the same bodega, and for a casual interaction, that’s often common ground enough.
To simply share a space with others outside of the hierarchy of work and the intimacy of inner circles is to humanize them, to at a very minimum observe some level of commonality.
Activities in third places tend to be unstructured and unscheduled; patrons do not act as formal hosts. Third places do not require a formal membership or significant monetary spending to occupy the space, they are designed to facilitate conversation above all else, and they are temporally and spatially accessible. For example, malls serve as hubs that bring different people from a large catchment area together in the same space, but only for the express purpose of atomized consumption, so they aren’t third places. In contrast, barbershops could simply be places of commerce, but some provide a space where informal interaction is encouraged and so they can serve as cultural hubs that facilitate local organizing.
My study of third places used large-scale data on residents and their neighborhoods in Los Angeles County to determine their contribution to cohesion and interaction between neighbors. The core argument is quite simple: On a fundamental level, neighborhood third places provide opportunities for residents to interact with their neighbors, and these small interactions might accumulate and allow for a more cohesive neighborhood. This is not to suggest an antiquated or romanticized view of community, where individuals who cross paths in such establishments form strong bonds with one another (though this is certainly possible), but rather to assert that even the casual interaction and familiarity by sight engendered through third places can be consequential for overall levels of cohesion.
Respondents in neighborhoods with more third places report higher levels of interaction with their neighbors and greater cohesion.
The form third places take might differ based on the local population, so we included a number of potential third places in our measure: cafes, coffee shops and tea houses; public parks and playgrounds; art galleries/centers, bookstores and record stores; pool halls, bingo halls, arcades and recreation centers; and lodges (e.g., Elks Lodge, American Legion), barbershops and bars. To parse out the effect of third places from other businesses, we controlled for the count of retail places overall. I also hypothesized that third places might have differing consequences for interaction and cohesion across neighborhoods of different socioeconomic strata. Third places in more affluent areas might actually increase anonymity among neighbors by attracting outsiders. In contrast, third places in low-income neighborhoods might be more likely to primarily serve residents in the immediate area.
Respondents in neighborhoods with more third places report higher levels of interaction with their neighbors and greater cohesion, an effect that is most prominent in low-income neighborhoods. Four additional third places were associated with a 24.3% increase in neighbor interaction and a 13.2% increase in cohesion in these neighborhoods. Importantly, these findings emerged controlling for the overall count of retail establishments that do not fit the third-place criteria, which were actually associated with reduced interaction and cohesion.
This study remains the only large-scale study of its kind in the United States, though other research lends further support. A similar study in the Australian context found third places to be associated with more networking among neighbors. A study using in-depth interviews with residents of deprived neighborhoods in Great Britain found that respondents value third places precisely because they serve as settings for informal social interaction, and that residents grieve the loss of local small businesses as the loss of important social spaces.
There is a tension in the criminological literature regarding the relationship between businesses and neighborhood crime. In the environmental criminology tradition, such places are conceptualized as potential “crime generators” or “crime attractors.” That is, a cafe might actually be associated with higher levels of crime because it attracts people and, in doing so, provides more opportunities or targets for criminal offending. Bars are quintessential “crime generators” in the literature not only because they attract an ambient population, but also because the consumption of alcohol can lower inhibitions and lead to conflict.
But to conceive of third places as potential crime generators belies their complexity and ignores their broader role in the community. There might be more crime on a block that has a beloved neighborhood bar simply because it attracts people, and those people can become targets for victimization. But the benefits of that establishment to the broader community are harder to quantify. They are spatially and socially diffuse, not limited to the block it sits on or even to its regular patrons. The familiarity, social ties and resultant cohesion that come from third-place interactions could reverberate throughout the community. They are latent assets that a community can activate when faced with problems, whether that entails a resident intervening to resolve a conflict on the street or neighbors organizing together to secure neighborhood resources or simply informally keeping an eye on things.
Third places are crucial to community well-being and cohesion, which can reduce crime organically without formal interventions.
Some studies have found direct effects of third places on crime. A longitudinal study found that increases in coffee shops in Chicago neighborhoods were associated with reduced homicide rates. A study of crime on street segments in Los Angeles County looked more broadly at the effect of consumer-facing businesses — categorized as local, nonlocal, small and big — on crime. Compared to big and nonlocal businesses, locally owned small businesses have weaker but still crime-enhancing effects, although this is compared to areas with no businesses at all. A study focused on the importance of barbershops and beauty salons in Black communities found that they are associated with lower crime across neighborhoods in Columbia, S.C.
Across different sorts of neighborhoods in different regions and countries, third places are found to be crucial to community well-being and cohesion, which can reduce crime organically without formal interventions. However, the promise of third places is potentially threatened by contemporary forms of neighborhood change.
First, gentrification processes affect not only a neighborhood’s housing stock and demographic composition, but its commercial landscape as well. In addition to displacement from their homes, longtime residents may also face the displacement of beloved neighborhood third places. While commercial establishments might strive to assume the role of third places, new businesses emerging in gentrifying contexts geared toward a specific demographic may be cost-prohibitive for longtime residents.
Qualitative research has detailed the struggles of older adults to maintain healthy social lives and feel a sense of connection to their community as an influx of new establishments aimed at a younger, more affluent crowd displaced their usual haunts. Interestingly, for a low-cost venue for socializing, these residents turned to a quite unlikely place — the local McDonald’s. While this highlights their resourcefulness in filling a void caused by gentrification, it is less than ideal. Residents reported a stigma associated with hanging out at McDonald’s, and they competed for space with another group that had no other options: teenagers.
In sum, gentrification can threaten the social fabric of communities and subgroups within them by displacing established third places. If third places are to have a role in enhancing public safety, they must be inclusive and made available to all members of the community.
Other research has documented increasing levels of poverty in suburban contexts as lower-income residents are pushed out of increasingly expensive urban neighborhoods. In contrast to low-income neighborhoods in the city, the suburbs are characterized by auto-dependent infrastructure and low-density residential land use. The suburban commercial landscape is often dominated by chains and big-box stores rather than local mom-and-pop shops. Thus, populations who traditionally have depended on third places to provide an informal and low-cost setting for sociality and networking may find themselves in contexts deprived of such opportunities, which could compound the criminogenic conditions they face.
Taken together, the evidence suggests that third places are a necessary but not sufficient component of a holistic, community-based approach to reimagining public safety from the ground up. Local bars, bookstores, and parks are not a panacea in the face of durable structural disadvantages and increasing social inequality. But by linking us with our neighbors, integrating us into the community and contributing to a cohesive neighborhood, they give us a fighting chance — and a reason to care for the neighborhood in the first place.
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