Coffee Houses as “The Third Place”

LEAD Pittsburgh’s Zersha Munir reports on different aspects of coffee houses including community, lifestyle, social interaction, and health, all framed by the concept of “the third place.” Read the article here.

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg speaks to the importance of public gathering places through his developed concept of “the third place.” His theory states that there are three places in a person’s life: work, home, and the third being a place of leisure outside of these two, where one can go to relax and socialize. Popular examples of “the third place” include parks, community centers, and coffee shops.

Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill is a largely residential area housing a myriad of residents, ranging from students to five-member families.  Located near both the city’s educational hub of Oakland and fast-paced professional environment of Shadyside, Squirrel Hill features housing and eateries but lacks the parks and bars found in its neighboring areas. As a result, its cafes and eateries serve as public gathering places for its residents, with the Starbucks at the corner of Forbes and Shady Avenues being no exception.

It is imperative that a public gathering place has an atmosphere conducive to interaction. In a 2006 study exploring the physical and social qualities that encouraged gathering in third places, specifically coffee shops, Florida State University’s Lisa Waxman found that coffee shops served as a key component of residents’ social interaction and community connection. She writes, “Overall, regular coffee shops patrons felt a strong attachment to their chosen coffee shop as well as the community in which they resided. There was a positive correlation between length of patronage and feelings of attachment to the community. Designers should consider the value that the built environment holds for creating community- gathering places that enhance the ability of people to connect with their community” (51).  A newly renovated coffee shop will enhance the neighborhood’s appeal, but the question here is how to maximize the shop’s positive impact in the community. As a group of Pittsburgh residents devoted to mental wellbeing, we urge Starbucks to reconsider the floor plan of their new storefront to allow for a design best suited to socialization.

While a floor plan that optimizes work spaces and charging sources might benefit an area like Oakland, where its clientele consists of students dropping in to refuel and wrap up homework between classes, the Squirrel Hill Starbucks caters to a different lifestyle. The storefront is not a rest stop, but a destination. As Oldenburg states, “The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres.” Squirrel Hill residents spend the majority of their days in other, more business-oriented parts of town laden with spaces to work and study, and so when they go out near home, it is not out of necessity but choice. The appeal of a public gathering place in Squirrel Hill should transcend utility; returning to Oldenburg’s theory, a key component of “the third place” is opportunity for social interaction, which in turn helps to improve emotional health.

LEAD’s goal is to increase awareness of mental health conditions, specifically depression, and to highlight the preventative measures that qualify these conditions as treatable. The effects of a mental health condition manifest physically, mentally and socially; however, small steps like regular social interaction can make a world of difference. A report in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior states that “the emotional support provided by social ties enhances psychological well-being, which, in turn, may reduce the risk of unhealthy behaviors and poor physical health (Kiecolt-Glaser et al. 2002Thoits 1995Uchino 2004)” (Umberson 1). Considering Starbucks’ coffee shops as potential public gathering places, and thus hubs for social interaction, LEAD has taken special interest in the development of Squirrel Hill’s new storefront. The proposed changes to its layout are minimal but will have lasting effects. The layout should create an open space that places emphasis on personal interaction rather than digital to minimize the phenomenon observed in a West Virginia University study where “urban public places are celebrated for their power to draw like-minded people and stimulate social ties, [but] many customers now hide behind ‘protective shields’ (e.g., laptops, E-readers, and iPods)” (Woldoff 206). With so much of life revolving around work, school, and required activities, the coffee shop should function as an escape. As Oldenburg says, “Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community,” and this sentiment speaks to LEAD’s actions regarding the new storefront. By choosing a floor plan that allows for easy interaction, Starbucks will help to foster a social, healthy and active community, with itself as a cornerstone.

Works Cited

Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. New York: Marlowe, 1999. Print.

Umberson, Debra, and Jennifer Karas Montez. “Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

Waxman, Lisa. “The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical Factors Influencing Place Attachment.” Journal of Interior Design 31.3 (2006): 35-53. 2006. Web.

Woldoff, Rachael A., Dawn Marie Lozzi, and Lisa M. Dilks. “The Social Transformation of Coffee Houses: The Emergence of Chain Establishments and the Private Nature of Usage.” International Journal of Social Science Studies 1.2 (2013): n. pag. 2013. Web.