During the global lockdown, it became apparent that space was important and contributed to much more than providing basic shelter. In this article I want to focus on two interconnected aspects, the need for social connection through urban public space and the redefinition of office space, whilst claiming the importance of “third spaces”.
Under lockdown rules, our cities demonstrated how places that are not homes or workspaces, but something in between, preserved the urban experience that was largely removed from our lives. We realized that we needed and still need spaces that are neutral and welcoming, where conversation can flow.
What are third spaces?
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third space” in 1991 to refer to a place that is not the home (first space), and not work (second space). It is a space where people gather and interact, it is both neutral and welcoming, where people tend to return, and a sense of belonging is naturally developed. Social theorists Homi K. Bhabha (1990) and Edward Soja (1996) described the third space as a transition space, a non-physical place where hybrid identifications are possible, and where cultural transformations can happen in everyday life. It is not necessarily a physical place, but a mental space, a way of defining the condition of the residents of contemporary cities, who probably weren’t born there. Indeed, such mental space is neither in the place of origin nor in the place of reception, but in another third place, a mixture, which also includes many other circumstances.
Their main characteristics are:
- Neutral ground
- The main activity is a conversation
- Accessibility and accommodation.
- Welcoming, one can go alone and find an acquaintance
- Regulars (encourages returning)
- Low maintenance
- High-spirited mood
- Home from home
In cities, third spaces are a community’s living room, where individuals can freely gather to exchange ideas. They are spaces that foster human interaction. We are talking about parks, open squares, tree-lined walkways, they often are in-between spaces, that enact our identities and sense of belonging, making for sustainable and resilient urban living.
The growing challenge for our cities in the COVID-19 age is to preserve the effects of third spaces in people, in other words, to preserve the potential for interaction.
What is happening in the post-covid city?
There is already a high demand for public space, and our cities are turning from extractive containers, where one purposely commutes to shop or to work, into social hubs. “Streets will not be enough”, as architect Sir David Adjaye says. Instead, parks will be treasured, becoming an essential part of urban design and citizen´s demand.
According to The 2020 American Survey of Mayors: https://www.surveyofmayors.com/ (which this year explores their views on COVID-19 recovery and implications, policing and protests, parks, and green space) 76% of them, believed their residents will visit parks and green space more frequently than before Covid, 70% thought that they will be walking more, and 62% will be cycling more frequently.
People have rediscovered their public spaces, and that is here to stay.
In parallel, we can see that the world of work is changing our cities too. We are identifying new needs, amongst them, the need to collaborate and interact. This brings up new opportunities for businesses to develop their own ‘third places’, spaces where so-called “weak ties” (Mark S. Granovetter, 1973) can become apparent, as they prove the importance of informal connections to spark innovation.
Thus, seeking spaces for collaboration not too different from the ones which already existed may not be too different from the likes of WeWork, etc. but in the post-covid city, they are not just for startups or freelance workers, but the mainstream worker.
Furthermore, there is already a growing debate in developed countries (most workers in developing countries do not have the option of remote work), about how work will be structured after Covid. Hybrid formats (3+2, or 4+1) seem to be here to stay, as what it seemed originally ideal, zero commuting, is confronted with the need to wanting to be back in the office more often, due to the need for physical connection.
Workspaces will likely have to be different (we have identified the need to have to concentrate on complex tasks without distraction, the so-called deep work) and consequently, new business models will have to follow suit.
The truth is that many companies will move towards a hybrid operating model where employees are split between office and home, and there will be more variety than ever. The future of work will be hybrid. The post-covid city will be a social destination, where we recover the urban experience removed from our lives.
Associate Dean, IE School of Architecture and Design, IE University