Monday, May 24, 2010

Creating a "third place" in commercial space

Today, I had the great pleasure of meeting the Interfaith Amigos, who will hopefully give a talk in our brownbag series later this year. The meeting was also a pleasure for a secondary reason, which is that they had me come to their 'office'. They don't have a private office - they meet at the Third Place Commons in Lake Forest Park. Third Place Commons is a big common space in a mall, distinguished from the typical mall food court by being expressly intended to be a comfortable gathering space that the community can use as their "third place" - one that is neither home nor the office.
I had seen a similarly convivial space in the Crossroads Mall in Bellevue before (turns out they are backed by the same developer), and I loved the idea but found myself a bit skeptical. Shopping malls are private spaces conditionally open to the public, and typically so tightly controlled and intensely devoted to the act of selling stuff that it was hard to imagine them really working as worthwhile gathering places for anything else. My abiding suspicion that the loveliness of the Bellevue and Lake Forest Park third places was an illusion was finally put to rest when the Amigos told me that they had coauthored a book, using Third Place Commons as their main office through the whole process. That's a serious commitment of time, effort and concentration, and if the venue worked for that then it really does succeed as a third place.
This left me wondering why so few mall food courts serve this purpose. In terms of its basic functional components, there's not much difference between these deliberate third places and the typical food court: a central open area with chairs and tables, with food and drink vending at its edges, and shops to either side of it. So why is it that so few are inviting, comfortable places to meet someone, or to spend countless hours working together on a project?
Clearly intent matters in itself—because these are designated as common areas, we know we aren't going to get shooed away or snarked at for not spending enough money—but there are also some design decisions that anyone trying to emulate these places could learn from:
  • The food & drink vending isn't as heavily intertwined with the seating as in most malls, so you can sit in the middle without bathing in the neon lights of a fast food outlet.
  • There's some open space that can be used as a stage with minimal planning.
  • Both places have a giant chess set, which serves as a highly visible sign that noncommercial uses are welcome.
  • The presence of the mall as an organisation—manifested in signs and uniformed personnel—is lighter in these places than the rest of the mall.
  • I don't recall this being true at Crossroads, but at the Third Place Commons the furniture feels quite different. It's made of wood, and it doesn't have the uniformity of typical chain-commercial furniture.
  • Both places are connected directly to the outside. At Crossroads it's possible to walk into the mall and go straight to the gathering area, without walking past more than one shop. At Third Place Commons that isn't possible, because it's upstairs, but there are big windows facing outside.
Alone, none of these are magic bullets—in fact, I think I can find a sterile, hostile food court with each of these features—but collectively they do help reinforce the impression that these are authentic, welcoming gathering spaces, carved out of the usually much less welcoming commercial space of the mall.

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