Monday, March 5, 2012

What Makes a Good Third Place?

I found this article about stations as third places, and I'd like to offer my comment on it:
The article in question has a bit of confusion: first it starts talking about London Marlyebone (a major terminal) and comparing and contrasting it with like depots in the U.S. (Chicago Ogilvie, D.C. Union...) but then the reference to Kalamazoo--in no way a major urban terminal--throws one off.

The problem with this, I think, is that the level of activity needed to make a good third place in smaller cities and towns, like Kalamazoo, is much less than what is needed in major cities. So the discussion of why Seattle's King Street or Indianapolis Union underwhelms fits well in a context dominated by stations like Marlyebone, Grand Central, Southern Cross, Gare du Nord, etc., but not Kalamazoo.

A second problem is that transportation options alone do not make a third place. Greyhound stations usually have lots of transportation options, for example, but are equally as universally dank, dark, dreary, and lots of other words that begin with D.

Let me offer up an example of a smaller station that is a great third place. Lansdale, PA, is a borough in the Philadelphia suburbs, a smallish town to the north of the city. It is near the edge of the city's extensive-by-American-standards commuter rail network. And it is a good third place. Why?

It has a small café/coffeeshop inside (a good one too). This encourages commuters to stop and get a cuppa, and breakfast and even lunch. It has free Wi-Fi, which should not go unnoticed when we note that Starbucks and Barnes & Noble are frequently cited as good third places. The trains there run half-hourly (at least) from before dawn to midnight, and there are two buses that stop there too. It is along the borough's Main Street, guaranteeing a wealth of other third places nearby (such as the library). And it is in an architecturally excellent and reasonably well-maintained structure--in other words, a building projecting warmth and hominess--something else we need to keep in mind and often don't. It's not perfect, of course--the waiting area and café within close up before dinner hour--but as far as stations as third places go, it's an excellent example of what can be achieved even in a borough of 10,000.

And on the flipside, architectural quality really can make a difference. Market East is one of Philadelphia's busiest stations, and sits right off the concourse of an urban mall, but fails to be a good third place in no small part because of how dreary the waiting area feels. By contrast, the platform area is extremely open and airy, and hence many people favor waiting there instead, which sucks the energy out of the main waiting room(s). 
Does anybody know of any other smaller stations like Lansdale's--stations that function as much as a place to go to as they do a way to get from there to here? I am sure it's not alone: even in the Philadelphia area, I can think of a couple of other stations that come close...

Edit: A prompt reply:
Thanks Stephen. Kalamazoo was meant to depict that you do not have to be a
big city station to be a successful third place. Your description of
Lansdale sounds like another fine example. For mid-sized city status, four
AMTRAK passenger trains a day is a lot here in the U.S., though it would be
even better to have commuter rail to Chicago from there like SE Wisconsin
and NW Indiana do. I think the differing time zones between MI and IL makes
that difficult.

I have been in Market East and agree with your assessment - that is
partially why I did not include it. In addition, not all small city
stations in the UK are great third places - many are just way points, but
the station in Inverness, Scotland is a successful exception. Perhaps it
helps being a tourist town. 

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