Throughout this pandemic many of us lived our lives in one place: our home. For me, that meant turning our basement into an office space, our kitchen table into a school room, and we found ways to have fun, relax, and create all within this one place. We understood that living out of one place was only temporary and we looked forward to the day that we could step out and back into the world again.
When we think about our lives, we actually live out of several places. Sociologists consider that the first place is our home, the second is our place of work, but it’s the third places where we go to experience community. Places like a cafe, a park, a garden, a sports gathering, gym, church, or library. Nail salons and playgrounds are places where we connect with friends, share gossip, ask for advice, mingle, and feel a great sense of being included, seen, known, and even loved.
A lot happens in these third places. These places are open and accessible to lots of people, they invite people to share stories and listen in conversation, they are places where we might expect to see someone we know, and they are places where you don’t have to pretend; you can be yourself, have some fun, think, and be at ease around others.
Third places have largely been shuttered throughout the pandemic. Barber shops and ice cream stores were closed, and dance studios moved to zoom. Third places where we socialized were, in the fight against Covid-19, appropriate places to try and limit connection, and thus infection. But in the process we lost the very places where we found, and gave, so much of ourselves. We lost our communities.
In recent years urban planners have discovered that third places are vital to good neighbourhoods. It is not wasteful to give space for places of worship, gardens, community centres, and toboggan hills. These are more than amenities, they foster the very life of our cities. Recently on a trip to Kelowna, BC, I came across a creative project. The city closed down a main street, set up outdoor games, benches, and tents and created a third place for people to stop and connect. It was colourful, welcoming, and a good example of the role third places make in shaping great communities.
What sociologists have found is that third places allow for chance encounters and unexpected opportunities. Neighbours seldom connect on a zoom call, but do bump into each other at the park or grocery store. These connections give that small town feeling, which is really a sense of deep belonging and safety.
Once challenge facing Chestermere is the lack of community neighbourhoods. Church basements, Legion halls, an old warehouse turned into a brew pub, botanical garden, college campus, museum, art gallery, used book store, or theatre space would all normally serve as places where we could meet others. Chestermere has few of these spaces. As our city grows we need to find ways to make room for third places and highlight the value that they bring to our city, and the health of our community. The pandemic has taught us a lot, and perhaps we are learning that community grows in special ways when we come together.