April 29, 2020
As we moved out of Level 4 this week, cafes across the country were overrun. The surge in demand saw queues form and online ordering apps crash. As Jimmy Buffett put it, we took to our takeaway coffees like a man just released from indenture.
But our craving to reconnect with our local cafés is about much more than just getting a much-missed coffee fix. Instead, it shows that our houses were never meant to be lived in 24-7, and that we are fundamentally social creatures.
Local cafes demonstrate this better than just about anywhere because they provide us with what social scientists call ‘third places’ – places that are distinct from our homes and our workplaces. They are an essential part of what makes communities successful.
If you’re old enough to remember the TV show Cheers, then you know the appeal of the bar at the heart of the show was because it provided a place where everyone knew your name. In 2020, those places where everyone knows your name are much more likely to be cafes than bars. The kind of place where you can share stories, relax, and enjoy a spirit of comradeship.
My third place is Joe’s Garage in Wigram. The team there are well known for the amazing outreach work they do but I suspect even they don’t realise how important their ‘third place’ has been in building a community. Suffice to say that, before the lockdown, some of the regulars drove for miles for their daily coffee and fellowship.
During the lockdown I did a pretty good job of staying connected to my family and my workmates, but I really began to miss my third-place crew. Having been without that added dimension to my community life brought into stark contrast how important it is.
And the social scientist in me wonders if there is a larger lesson here. It’s one thing for those of us with established third places to start reclaiming them but what about those who never had one? For many young New Zealanders, ‘third places’ have become virtual spaces. The kind of spaces that are limited by what Eli Pariser called the ‘filter bubble’; spaces deliberately selected to find people who already think and feel like we do. In contrast, the real hard work of building communities comes from meeting and engaging with people who don’t always think or act like we do.
This also seems to have implications for how we build our cities. Kaid Benfield, a great thinker about liveable (and loveable) cities, once proposed the idea of the ‘popsicle test.’ This is the simple—and brilliant—idea that you can judge how liveable a neighbourhood is if an eight-year-old can safely walk somewhere to buy a popsicle and get back home before it melts. So why not a similar test to address our sense of longing for belonging? To pass it you need to be able to get somewhere from your house in five minutes where you can commune with people you wouldn’t otherwise interact with. That might be a bar, café, church, or sports club. But to pass the test, they have to be the kind of places where, as the Cheers theme song reminds us, you can see that “our troubles are all the same” and “they’re always glad you came.”
And if you don’t think you can pass the test, let me suggest that this becomes your goal for the rest of 2020. Finding your third place will enrichen your life and change how you see your community.
- Carl Davidson is a Social Scientist at Research First Ltd