Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

Third places and meetups

Community and urban design are two things somewhat close to my heart. Community is very much at the core of it, I’m a community guy by any measure of the word. Urban design is more of a curiosity to me: I watch videos on it from channels like Not Just Bikes, City Beautiful and Strong Towns and occasionally read books and articles around the topic.

In this blog post, I’ll introduce you to third places as a concept and how I think our meetups provide some of the same benefits.

Third places

I probably first heard the term “third place” from Not Just Bike’s video The Great Places Erased by Suburbia (the Third Place), followed by Elliot Sang’s Nowhere to Go: The Loss of Third Places and Andrewism’s What Our Cities Are Missing.

The thoughts marinated in my head until one late night I decided to look more into it and found Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place. In this book, from the late 1980s, Oldenburg coined the term third place and described what he considered to make third places what they are, why they are so important and how the 80s United States was suffering from losing them.

The book itself is very much a creation of its time and place. It is very much focused on the US landscape - often contrasting the issues there with the good stuff we have in Europe - as well as very traditional in its relationship thinking. It’s heavily heteronormative and traditional and paints third places as a place for the husband to escape the family to be with the other man while women stay at home. All of that filtered out, the book makes great points about the benefits of third places.

Third place is a place that’s not home (first place) or work (second place) where people gather in a location, often a pub or cafe or similar, to meet. Oldenburg characterised third places with a few functions.

First and most importantly, according to Oldenburg, a third place unites the neighbourhood. It’s a place where people in the local community can gather and meet each other. Third places are mixers where people can come and interact with each other regardless of their occupations, status or other factors that normally matter a lot in our casual social relationships.

Another function that third places have is bringing the youth and the adults together in a relaxed enjoyment. Oldenburg writes a lot about the drift between the youth and adults in American society and how there’s less and less affordable places for the youth to gather - and even less those where they can be with adults of their community.

He writes about how the entertainment in third places is provided by the people themselves. Rather than going to a movie theater or a gig where someone performs - or watching television at home -, third places get their appeal from the fact that you can run into people you know in there: without schedule, without program. They are places where you casually and regularly pop by and can trust to find people to chat with.

Compared to formal organisations, Oldenburg characterises third places by their high inclusivity. To join and take part in the community, you don’t need to be a member or hold a specific job or position.

Oldenburg also writes about how in commercial “nonplaces”, human being becomes reduced to a “customer or shopper, client or patient, a body to be seated, an adress to be billed, a car to be parked” compared to third places where people can be individuals.

Meetups and third places

I run a lot of meetups and as I’ve been reading The Good Great Place and pondering about the third place phenomenon, I’ve found a lot of overlap and commonality between the two ideas. Mainly, I believe that the meetups can serve a lot of the purposes that third places offer while not being completely in line with Oldenburg’s categorisation.

If you’re not familiar with the meetup concept, I have written about them in this blog and in our Python meetup’s blog. In a nutshell, they are monthly organised events for software developers with talks or workshops hosted by members of the community. I run Turku ❤️ Frontend for frontend developers and archipylago for Python developers.

The main ways meetups are not third places is that we’re not a place that’s regularly open where people can just come by – although being able to operate a space like that is a dream of mine for another day – and that due to our focus on a technical topic, we’re not such a mixer of people that Oldenburg writes about.

Looking from the outside in, tech meetups may seem very much commercial/professional: we’re often hosted in offices of companies and sponsored by these companies, discussing “work stuff”. But I don’t personally feel like they are such when looking from the inside.

For me, a meetup is a great place to gather together with people who share an interest and (mostly) live in the local neighbourhood (in our case, city of Turku). I’ve been running meetups for nearly a decade now and both for me as the organiser and many of our participants, a key reason to attend is to catch up with friends, learn something new, discuss and share ideas and experiences.

We also aim for the high inclusiveness that Oldenburg writes about in that thanks to our partner companies, we can make the events free of charge to participate, there are no requirements for what you need to be to participate (other than maybe the self-directing interest towards the topics). You could be a seasoned expert running your own tech business, a student starting their career or a hobbyist tinkering on their free time and you’re equally welcomed and part of the community.

We do still have work to do to increase the inclusiveness: for example, many of our venues are not accessible to people with certain disabilities and I’d love to be able to make at least the talks of our events accessible to those who cannot make it to the events.

While we do have organised program in form of talks, they are provided by the members of the community and deep down are not the main thing of the events. The real deal in these meetups are the discussions that happen before, between and after the talks and the relationships that are built with fellow meetup goers.

Every meetup has their own vibe and tone. My goal is to build ours in a way that are relaxed, playful and fun with a strong sense of community.

I like to think of our meetups as a third place where people interested in software development can gather together, make new friends, learn new things, have great discussions and as bonus, make good career moves. While we don’t fulfil all the characteristics of Oldenburg’s idea of third place, I’ll focus on the ones that we do and hope to provide a great environment for people in the neighbourhood in the future as well.

Notes from others

After publishing this post, zakb commented on it sharing how mountain trails offer similar benefits to them:

Might be a stretch, but the mountains are my third place. I read this not long after I was thinking about how when I run the local trails I regularly end up having a good yarn with someone. I feel like its a social outing even though I run solo. A bit like going to the pub without announcing it, knowing you’ll run into someone.

I really like this thinking. I’ve started to call these expansions of the idea of third places as thirdplace-esque in my personal notes.

As I was reading the story of those mountain trails, I started thinking about how these places can emerge from the habits of the community in addition to being places specifically ran by people and organisations.