The real secret to successful mixed-use developments? It’s the third places

Your favorite bench at the neighborhood park. The table in the corner of your local public library. The neighborhood bar at the end of your block. The yoga class at your gym. These are all examples of third places. And they are the key to building successful mixed-use developments and communities.

What are third places? They are the places we go to when we are not at home – known as the first place – or work – the second place. When you attend your local community theater, you are visiting a third place. When you sit on a park bench reading a book, you’re in a third place. When you chat with your neighbors at the local dog park, you are, again, in a third place.

And today, those third places are even more important. A growing number of people are working remotely, even if only on a part-time basis. They are spending less time in their second place, then, and socializing with fewer people. This makes the time spent in third places more important for people’s mental wellbeing.

Third places have also become more important in commercial developments. Mixed-use developments are thriving today, largely because of the pocket parks, brewpubs, dog runs, bowling alleys and gyms that they offer.

And this need for third places is only going to grow as developers see just how successful mixed-use developments that offer spaces for socialization are becoming.

We spoke with Alex Baum, vice president of strategy with ERA-co, a New York City-based global consultancy firm that works with clients planning and developing mixed-use projects, about what makes for successful third places and why developers need to think beyond coffee shops and bare patches of grass when developing these key spaces.

ERA-co is working with clients on projects in eight countries. The firm employes everyone from master planners and urban designers to professionals specializing in spatial analysis, place strategies and graphic design.

Here is some of what he had to say:

The general definition of third places is clear. But how do you personally define third places?
Alex Baum: 
Howard Schultz and Starbucks helped popularize the term with the idea that people should walk into a Starbucks and stay there for hours with a coffee. The bars in New York and the pubs in England are examples of third places. Third places have always existed. It’s where people have long exchanged ideas and where movements have been born.

But it’s important to go beyond the café, beyond the pub. We always joke about coffee shop or latte placemaking. When people are looking for something to add to a mixed-use development, they always say, ‘Let’s put a coffee shop here.’” Third places, though, are places that are familiar to your feet. They are places where you are recognized and you feel that you belong. It could be a dog park, bench, stoop, café or corner bar. It’s more about what the space provides you in terms of a sense of belonging and connection.

It could be your running club or the movie nights that happen on a Saturday night in a park in your town. It’s a place where you walk to and nod your head as you meet people. It’s the ‘where everyone knows your name’ idea.

How important are these third places today?
You no longer need to interact with humans to live your life. That provides convenience, but it is also a great detriment to society. The advantage of third places is that they connect us to the surrounding community. They expose us to more diversity. At home and at work, you don’t have diversity, or the diversity you have is fixed and not fluid. It is important to see others and see how they function. It’s important to become a part of the broader narrative of society.

What do developers need to consider when developing third places for their mixed-use developments?
For a development that is more focused on office properties, we know that a mixed-use environment demands higher rents. In a post-COVID world, when you are trying to attract tenants, you can’t just offer a nice space. You must prove to tenants that the spaces you create are relevant to a new cohort of employees who have the choice of whether to come into the office. You have to create an environment where relationships can be created not just in the cubicle or in the office but outside the office, too.

There are two things that are clichés when developers are creating third places: One is a coffee house and the other is a farmer’s market. We understand the idea of those coffee shops. But you need a diversity of offerings that is appealing throughout the day and at different price points. You might need a place where someone can go in and spend $3. They don’t have to sit down for a full meal. They can go in and not have to spend that much to feel welcome in the space.

With a lot of third places, going there becomes a sort of ritual for people, and that’s a positive thing for a development. Look at gyms. People make that one of their rituals, their routines. They keep coming back to these spaces. They might join classes that allow them to socialize with other people. That socialization often keeps them coming back. That should be attractive to the owners of the developments in which these places are.

What about in apartment developments? Are amenities such as on-site fitness centers and dog runs considered third places?
Some third places are private. They only impact a small number of people. They create a sense of community, but only in a vertical establishment of similar-minded people with similar economic means versus the entirety of the community that we inhabit. Those private spaces don’t have the same power or impact that public third places tend to have.

Public spaces just have more potential. There’s a park near where I live in New York in which people work out in any way you can imagine. There are people on rollerblades. There are people doing ballet moves, weightlifting and sprinting.

There are ways to create a public third space and do it well so that it is used on a consistent basis. You don’t want just a blank slate of grass that is only used by a few people at very specific times. It’s about programming a space so that there are things going on. It’s about providing areas for people to exercise or sit or just congregate. The most successful of these public third places have a diversity of uses throughout the day. Developers, then, shouldn’t just add green space. They should add pocket parks that have seating and spaces to gather.

People would never say this, but it’s a move to a more European-minded urbanity. Rather than vast parks, it’s about pocket parks, a substitute for the European plaza. Developers are considering smaller, intimate spaces. Governments and planners are doing a good job of mandating these public spaces, of saying you can build higher and denser if you provide more public space.

Did the lockdowns and business closures during the height of COVID instill an even greater demand in people for these third places?
Whenever there is a shock to the system, it allows you to zoom out and look at something from the outside rather than from the inside.

There is an exercise that we sometimes do: How will people feel if you take something away from them? What COVID did was take a lot away from people. And in doing so, it connected them to different faces and places that they weren’t engaging with before. National parks never saw more visits. That has since held steady and resilient. People looked at traveling to spaces within a one- or two-hour drive versus a one- or two-hour-hour flight. People spent more time outdoors, whether on their stoops, the sidewalk or the park.

People learned that third places were not necessarily commercial spaces, but that they can be outdoor spaces.