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Touching Grass: Holding On To Third Places

We need third spaces. But where did they go?

By Sophia Blair

Graphic By Alicia Chiang

Gen Z is no stranger to the mental fallout of scrolling through superficial social media and feeling alone despite being surrounded by people online and in real life. Yet, deleting the apps is only even more isolating, so we feed into the illusion of companionship illuminated by our hyperconnected world. The “loneliness epidemic” is a term that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has popularized to describe the state of Gen Z and American society. In a digital world, especially post-pandemic, people have learned to thrive in online spaces, and, as a result, we have lost our physical third places. 

Third places are essential community hubs that foster casual social interactions outside of the spheres of work, school, or home. Coined by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place, these environments serve as organic settings where individuals can naturally cross paths and engage in unstructured socialization. 

Oldenburg emphasizes that third places are characterized by their lack of obligation or ulterior motives, allowing people to come and go as they please without the pressure of societal status. These spaces are open, accessible, and welcoming to all, fostering a sense of community and belonging. They are inherently wholesome and without extravagance or pretentiousness, encouraging playful conversation and acting as a home away from home for people to recharge their spirits.

Third spaces may be parks, roller rinks, churches, community centers, libraries, malls, theaters, bars, or skate parks. As our world becomes increasingly digital, these spaces are being replaced by online ones. Malls used to be the most popular third place for teens but have recently become less popular due to the ease of online shopping. 

People often go from work to home and from home to work in a never-ending cycle. Some people have two places: work and home. With the recent work-from-home shift, those people now have only one place. They work from home, and their third place becomes social media or other digital spaces. Our lives, feeling that small, can make us lose perspective. Knowing people, even those you don’t like, inherently broadens your worldview. Social media, on the other hand, promotes echo chambers and hyper-niche socialization. Third places are the solution to burnout and are an easy way to improve mental health and morale in communities.

But the problem isn’t just Gen Z — it’s America. Our culture is so individualistic and capitalistic that we have cultivated a cultural norm of being extremely busy and overworked. In Europe, there are town squares where people simply hang out after school or work and organically run into friends. The sense of community is stronger because they embrace passive socialization. In the U.S., we schedule meetups with friends and structure our socialization. Seeing each other in person feels like something to check off the to-do list. Third places, such as these European town squares, are the answer to ease the rigidity that burns us out, makes us stay inside and doom scroll.


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