Archive for third places

Turning off WIFI and plugging into cities

Cities are changing along with the role of the internet in our lives.  Consider this:

Some of the hippest coffee bars on the continent are shutting off their wifi Internet service.  What initially drew in customers is now hampering the growth of business for the cafes with great food, coffee, and locations — at least in prime time.

When one person sits at a table, slowly sipping one cup of coffee for 2 hours while surfing the net, it can repel other customers, especially those that come in small groups and order food as well as espresso beverages.

There are a couple significant developments for urban life to note in this shift.

First, WIFI has become so common in “third place” businesses like cafes and fast food restaurants that in many ways its a “unique offering” to not offer it.  It suggests that this cafe is for food, coffee and socializing, as well as being “unplugged” and thinking without the distraction of constant information.  Kinda retro, if you will, or maybe chic depending upon the establishment.  And also very urban–after all, why are people in cities if not to experience other people.

Second, freeloading internet access off restaurants and cafes may start to become very “low brow” or “un-hip.”  This may make the access at libraries and other civic spaces more utilized and valued.  It’s okay to sit in the library for hours reading books or magazines or newspapers–always has been.  Now it will also be a place where it’s okay to freeload internet access for the day.  This could help rejuvenate libraries.

Third, from the popularity of working in third places, like coffee houses, it seems that many urban residents actually need a place where they can get out of their house or apartment, meet the occasional customer, and have a coffee while working.  Starbucks isn’t always the right venue as it can get loud, parents with crying babies can come in, etc.  Maybe there is a need for a more professional, business centre that looks a bit like a coffee house with a variety of seating options, serves coffee (employs a barrista) but also offers a printer, a scanner, fax and other services.  Perhaps you pay by the hour to be there, or a monthly membership and the latte is included.  Maybe such a place already exists.

As more people live in dense areas, and as more people work freelance or are permitted significant flexibility by their employer, urban spaces for working and collaborating and unplugging continue to change.  What’s next?

Supermarket parking lots as new neighbourhood hubs

Could supermarket parking lots in now-dense urban areas become public squares? or be re-designed as great public places in other ways?

Neal Pierce recently penned an intriguing piece about supermarkets on

We perfected the buy-and-drive model from the post-World War II expansion onward. But is it necessarily the future?

No, asserts my Seattle friend and urban design planner, Mark Hinshaw. He sees a dramatically transformed role for supermarkets. They’ll actually become the anchors of new and walkable neighborhoods, he predicts in a Planning magazine article co-authored with markets analyst Brian Vanneman.

Why the shift? Americans’ high personal consumption levels were starting to wind down even before the Great Recession. Households have shrunk in size and the population is aging, with more taste for close-by shops and facilities. Many young people are eschewing the scattered suburban pattern in favor of denser urban living. Buying a house on the urban fringe, once seen as a ticket to wealth-building, now looks to be a big risk. Walking for health and weight loss has begun, for many Americans, to outshine the sedentary lifestyle of using an auto for every conceivable errand. And many people are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

Neighbourhoods that offer the option of walking to do one’s errands have grown in popularity for all the reasons cited above.  In some places this has resulted in homes (including town homes, mid rise and high rise buildings) now surrounding what used to be a more isolated supermarket with a massive, attached parking lot.

In these cases, it seems that turning this space into something more could be great for everyone.

  • If additional small stores or service businesses were added to the space, it would attract more shoppers–great for business.
  • If there was some public space like a small playground, or a sitting area to enjoy one’s coffee, people would come to connect with their neighbours and not just to shop.
  • And if this space connected to other walkable–perhaps retail–streetscapes, more customers would be drawn in.

The owner of the supermarket and parking lot could also benefit through increased property values or options.  A redevelopment of the space might allow for the creation of office or residential space above.

To be sure, parking would still be required at these new versions–sometimes the groceries you need to get are heavy and the car is the logical option–but perhaps fewer spaces, or underground.

While many suburban supermarkets-and-parking lots will likely remain auto-centric destinations for a while.  There are places where density has grown up around these expansive uses and the whole community could benefit from the “accident” of having a big empty space that can now be used for community building rather than parking.

Old and New Third Places

The Economist had a special feature on mobile technology, nomadic workers, and what both mean to urban society.  One observation the writers made was that these mobile technologies often connect us to familiar people far away, but create a barrier toward connecting to strangers sitting beside us.

One example used was Third Places — coffee shops, downtown plazas, etc. where mobile workers sometimes hang out to work, rather than be stuck in an office.   Many of these places used to foster communication.  Historically, many revolutionary movements (whether political, philosophical or artistic) were forged in coffee houses throughout the world.  People gathered, consumed too much caffeine, and generated new inspiring ideas.  Today, the Economist authors and sources noted, people in third places often don’t talk to each other:

James Katz at Rutgers fears that cyber-nomads are “hollowing [third places] out”.  It is becoming common place for a cafe to be full of people with headphones on, speaking to their mobile phones or laptops and hacking away at their keyboards, more engaged with their e-mail in box than with the people touching their elbows.  These places are “physically inhabited but psychologically evacuated,” says Mr. Katz, which leaves people feeling “more isolated than they would be if the cafe were merely empty.”

Yesterday I was walking down a street in Vancouver known for its coffee houses.  Some of them have been around for decades, run by Italian or Portuguese immigrant families.  Others opened more recently.   Almost all now offer wireless internet access.   However, the older cafes had more people hanging out and talking.  At my favorite stop, an Italian-run haunt that opened in the 1970s, I saw three people huddled around one laptop screen, discussing something.  A couple each with a computer sat at another table and worked and chatted in a multi-tasking kind of way.  Most chatting people did not have mobile devices with them.  But they were interspersed around the cafe with the computer people.  Most people stopped to look and smile when the Barrista starting flirting with my giggly 8 month old baby.

I took my coffee to go and continued on our walk.  As I passed newer coffee places, I noticed what the Economist writers observed.  Everyone inside seemed detached from the cafe, in their own worlds wearing headphones and faces pressed against a computer screen.  Had I wandered into these places with a baby, I had the feeling that everyone would have stiffened up, worried that the baby would make noise and disturb their detachment from the world.

There are two types of Third Places, it seems.  Ones that foster some sort of human interaction.   And those that really function as office space, with people “virtually” closing the door with their headphones and computer screens.

Hope against the spread of generica

Visiting a new city becomes far more meaningful when you can find unique places where local people live and interact — when you can find an actual community.   Usually this requires finding locally owned and operated restaurants, cafes, shops, etc. that often anchor neighborhoods.
In so many cities, whether in North America or around the world, global brands have taken over certain commercial areas, including (or particularly) around where visitors might congregate such as off ramps from freeways, around tourist hotels, and near tourist attractions.   Not knowing whether any alternative exists just a few minutes drive or walk down a side street means that people often patronize the familiar generic chains at the expense of local independent business.

Brendan at the Where Blog offers hope against the spread of generica.  He proposes that RSS feeds on small devices like the Blackberry might offer a way for visitors to explore a new neighborhood.

Now imagine that you’re a tourist on a first-time trip to New York. Subscribe in advance to a feed like this and have bite-sized neighborhood tours sent to you every three hours. These tours could even be sequentially linked to start you off in each neighborhood, allowing for a few hours of independent exploration between tours. Heck, with the ubiquity of GPS technology, you could download a series of geo-coded tours in advance that would be triggered when you passed from one neighborhood to the next. As you walk north across Houston Street from SoHo to the Village, your phone rings. You answer, and a voice suggests that you walk three blocks east to Houston and Thompson to begin the Greenwich Village tour.

With this sort of technology, unfamiliar territory becomes a bit less intimidating. Recent transplants get out and meet more of their neighbors. Tourists get a boost in confidence that would likely encourage them to cover more ground and venture farther off the beaten path

What intrigues me about a technology like this is that it would allow many visitors to venture beyond Burger King for lunch and thereby support more independent businesses.

The same technology could provide links to restaurant menus, customer reviews and other information such as prices and speed or type of service (ie is this a restaurant for quick take out meals, or more of a sit-and-linger place).   Perhaps photographs could be available — or even live web cams.  The latter might allow locals could check to see who is there and would allow anyone to see if the place is busy or would have room for them.

With this information more people might try someplace new, whether close to home on when further away.

Neighborhood guiding technology, written by locals, could be a great way to preserve independent businesses and the character of communities within cities.

Starbucks – revitalizing force or more “generica”

No one can argue that Starbucks didn’t lend cache to newly revitalizing city neighborhoods. As young adults returned to live in central cities in record numbers, an expanding Starbucks was there to welcome them to warm, comfortable places….Starbucks stores have become familiar and important third places in cities, and it’s hard to imagine cities without them.CEOs for Cities, January 8, 2008

I enjoy an occasional Starbucks coffee (grande-decaf-half-sweet-soy-no-whip-mocha is my drink) and have been grateful to them for making soy available and soy drinks more popular — it makes living with a dairy allergy a little easier, especially when I travel.

But, I’m wondering if Starbucks has passed being simply a cool “third place” to enjoy a break alone or with a friend, colleague or client and has become just another generic fast food chain, albeit slightly more upscale than McDonalds.

A great neighborhood needs community-anchored third places where neighbors and friends can meet — and many of these need to be independent, those special places that you cannot find anywhere else. The capuccino bar owned by an Italian family, for example. Or, knowing that on the corner of 27th avenue and and Main Street is a locally owned cafe with the best fair trade, organic coffee. When a new place opens, it’s fun to listen to the buzz as word spreads around the neighborhood.

This is not to say that Starbucks hasn’t been a good phenomenon for cities. But, it is no substitute for family owned and operated, unique cafes as third places that anchor communities.

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