Third spaces: An anchor of communities

The hustle and bustle of life in the city can often make a person yearn for a place of respite, where one can feel grounded in a community.

Whether it be the coffee shop with friendly patrons that one stops by after difficult days or the local barangay hall where one chats with neighbors to bond over the latest community gossip, some places serve as safe havens amid the hustle and bustle of daily routine.

In some circles, these havens are called “third spaces.” But third spaces, “the middle place between home and work,” as civil engineer and transport planner Elijah Go Tian (CIV-TRE, ’18) describes them, are not simply a place to unwind—they are an anchor to a community, playing an often overlooked role in regulating one’s mental and social health.

Everywhere, all at once

Third spaces are as diverse as the communities that inhabit them. For contemporary dancer Jia* (III, AB-CAM), third spaces come in the form of her dance studio, where she connects with the wider dance community in Makati. “I really love most of the coaches there. They’re so welcoming, they’re so kind,” Jia notes, sharing that she has been going to the studio almost every week since the start of the year.

Third spaces can also be found in the hallowed halls of the University. Gab de Lazo (III, BSIT) and Yael Inventor (III, PSM-LGL), both members of La Salle Debate Society, often frequent its office in the Manila campus. Although the room is used mainly for training, de Lazo and Inventor share that the space also takes on a constant energetic aura, reflective of its members who stay in the office in between classes. “When it comes to clashing opinions or random topics—I think those kinds of outbursts of energy and just mini-debates do end up happening (in the office),” de Lazo illustrates.

Out in the city, third spaces come alive in open, car-free areas. Tian cites Pasig City’s Ortigas Market as a shining example of a third space where streets are closed off every weekend to make way for food stalls and community activities. “Instead of people going to the malls or [driving] their cars to go somewhere,” Tian observes, “They get to foster and build the community, they get to know their neighbors.”

Third spaces even exist through the internet, complementing physical spaces and face-to-face interactions. “You use group chats to organize seeing each other, [or discuss] when you’d be in the office at the same time rather than having the interaction exist within the online space,” de Lazo expresses.

Described as the middle place between home and work, third places offer a breath of fresh air and the warmth of community.

Through thick and thin

Third spaces forge common ground for people to socialize and seek refuge for mental and emotional support from the community. “What these third spaces [do] is that [they open] us up to the world. It creates new relationships that foster friendships or work opportunities,” Tian divulges.

This is why Jia treats her third space with utmost importance: “My heart feels so full [because] I found a safe space I can [visit] every now and then after school or over the weekends just to [unwind],” she expresses. She feels grateful that she is surrounded by her friends and coaches, who motivate her to refine the craft that she has found through her third space.

While these third spaces are crucial for individual and community development, these places were not spared by the onslaught of the pandemic. Social distancing inevitably pulled apart the social dimension of third spaces. “One of the hardest-hitting parts of the pandemic [is] the fact that you were just kind of trapped in a space,” de Lazo shares. He furthers that it hampered his ability to establish connections with new people.

In retrospect, Tian emphasizes that the pandemic made people reassess the value of these spaces, given their absence. “A third space acts as a vessel for people to socialize. If you take that away from people, we [tend to] retract back to ourselves [and] we lose [a] certain sense of belonging,” he observes.

Hustle and bustle

Time and again, third spaces face a crisis that impairs their accessibility. Tian believes that poor urban planning and car-centrism are mainly why these spaces tend to be exclusively accessed by the privileged. “You actually limit [the] use and potential [of third spaces] because of how you plan your cities,” he remarks. Third spaces slowly lose their purpose to extensively accommodate all members of society. “With this, you’re pushing third spaces away from each other, from communities, from families, and for development,” Tian adds.

Inventor notes that third spaces appear sporadically within the community or near La Salle—where people can find solace amid the busy atmosphere of Taft. “Once 9 pm hits, you’re really out there looking for your own place that isn’t ‘Goks’ (Gokongwei Hall) or a cafe that forces you to study.” She adds that not only is there a lack of physical third spaces, but also virtual ones, “There was also a lack of online spaces where people could find an ease or a natural way into creating meaningful relationships.”

Hence, improving these spaces within the community continues to be a challenge, mainly due to poor communication across sectors. “If we don’t know how to sell public spaces, the private sector, the government, [and] our fellow citizens won’t invest in it,” Tian comments. He notes that governing institutions must go the extra mile to promote third spaces and enhance their public image.

The places you’ll go

Moving forward, there is a heightened demand to increase the quantity while improving the quality of these communal spaces. Tian urges urban planners to consider the community’s participatory role in envisioning and building these spaces. “It creates a sense of ownership on their end. They would take care of it, claim it as their own, and develop it,” he elaborates. Tian believes that eliciting a sense of involvement from the people fosters sustainability and progressive community building.

“[We] continue creating this space to make it more [ours] and to make it more homey and cozy and something that [we] will always want to come back to,” Inventor attests. She adds that having this general attitude within their organization makes their office a more inviting place to be in.

True enough, Jia looks back at how her mentor helped strengthen her sense of belongingness to her dance community, sharing, “He levels with his students. He creates a space where it is okay to make mistakes,” she points out. She adds that her prolonged patronage to the dance studio is because the community makes her feel safe and welcomed. Similarly, de Lazo resonates with how important it is to exist in a place with like-minded individuals. “It makes you feel a lot lighter mentally and emotionally,” he says.

Ultimately, these recreational spaces are a warm invitation for people to slow down and build a community that fosters interpersonal relationships. In a time where third spaces are slipping away from reach, there is a stronger call to advocate for inclusive and safe spaces—where everyone deserves the right to have their own place of solace and relaxation.

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.

Therese Genota

By Therese Genota

Laurence Pontejos

By Laurence Pontejos

Leave a Reply