Work, home, repeat: Modern America lacks the ‘third place’

By Julien Hajenius | Web Editor

America faces a fundamental issue: We lack a place to go that is neither “work” nor “home.” We define this space as the “third place” — a space for recreation where one can simply exist — and its absence is an ongoing problem in how we structure our cities, exacerbated by the rise of phone use.

When I think of a third place, I recall the diner scenes from “Seinfeld” or the cozy cafe in “Friends” — a space that feels like home where one can gather to relax without expectations.

I’ve heard stories from my parents about the 1980s, when teens spent their days playing in parks and exploring small neighborhoods. Communication was simple. Knocking on a friend’s door was the norm. Life felt smaller and more connected back then.

However, dwelling solely on nostalgia is not enough. We must confront the present reality and acknowledge the challenges preventing us from reclaiming that sense of interconnectedness. One major obstacle is the influence of short-form content and the rise of phone use. On average, a person picks up their phone 80 times a day, while many from Generation Z and younger do so 200 times a day. We are less present in everyday moments, and this problem is only escalating.

Moreover, the physical landscape of our suburbs and cities has evolved to prioritize efficiency and commerce over socialization within our communities. Sprawling suburbs, desolate shopping malls and the dominance of the same 50 corporate chains in urban environments leave little room for intimate gathering spaces.

What is the solution to becoming more engaged in our environment? One approach is to actively reimagine and repurpose existing spaces to better serve the social needs of local communities. This might involve transforming vacant lots into community green spaces, converting abandoned storefronts into local cafes or permitting more community events in public spaces.

Furthermore, fostering a cultural shift away from constant digital stimulation and toward undistracted in-person interactions is essential. Establishing community through full awareness of the moment will address our social needs, as many mental health issues today stem from constant phone and technology use. By leveraging social spaces and reconsidering how we structure our cities, we can move toward reestablishing the third place.