Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

‘Third places’ may be the answer to America’s loneliness epidemic

The inside of a cafe
Seward Café in Minneapolis is a popular venue for the southside community.
Sam Stroozas | MPR News

Many popular sitcoms center around what’s known as a “third place.” For example, Central Perk in Friends, or The Bull and Finch Pub from Cheers.

Like the theme song for “Cheers” goes, it’s somewhere where everybody knows your name. Where you can socialize in a place other than your home or work and build community.

But with the whole world accessible on your smartphone, it’s hard to resist the call of the couch. It’s hurting us more than we think.

Richard Kyte is a professor of ethics at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and researched third places extensively for his upcoming book, “Finding Your Third Place.” He joined Minnesota Now to talk about it.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] (SINGING) Where everybody knows your name.

CATHY WURZER: Many popular sitcoms center around what's known as a third place-- for example, Central Park in Friends or the Bull and Finch Pub from Cheers. Like the theme song goes, it's somewhere where everybody knows your name, where you can socialize in a place other than your home or work and build some community.

But with the whole world accessible on your smartphone, it's kind of hard to resist the call of the couch. And it's hurting us more than we think. Richard Kyte is a native Minnesotan and a Professor of Ethics at Viterbo Con-- [LAUGHS] it's been a long day-- Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin. He has researched third places extensively for his upcoming book, Finding Your Third Place. And we are really pleased that Professor Kyte is joining us here. Thank you for taking the time.

RICHARD KYTE: Good to be here, Cathy. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: It's a pleasure. OK. Why is this called a third place? There has to be first and second places, right?

RICHARD KYTE: Yes. This is the research that Ray Oldenburg did about 25 years ago on first place is home. Second place is work. Third place is where we go to socialize.

CATHY WURZER: And how important is this third place?

RICHARD KYTE: Well, it's vitally important. It is so important because it's kind of the cornerstone of where we build social capital in communities, which is the kind of generalized trust that strengthens our engagement, our willingness to work together with one another, our ability to get through crises. And so what we're seeing is a decline in the number of third places, these places where it's easy to just drop in and gather and get to know your neighbors and get to know strangers better. And so as we see the third places declining, we are also seeing trust in our society declining as well.

CATHY WURZER: Let me ask about maybe the history of third places. Back in the day, where were the more popular third places? I'm assuming pubs and bars and that kind of thing. But were there other places that were considered the types of gathering places that you're talking about?

RICHARD KYTE: Yeah. They're any place where it's easy to drop in and it's very comfortable. You don't have to dress up or make a reservation to go to a third place. So it could be a public park. Could be a gym. Of course, like bars or pubs, little coffee shops, cafes, churches are often third places for people. Traditional third places are in neighborhoods.

CATHY WURZER: And that's what's bringing folks together. What happened during this pandemic? That had to have had a big impact on third places.

RICHARD KYTE: Well, it's interesting because the pandemic actually brought attention to our loss of third places. Third places have been declining for a long time. We can trace this back probably 100 years or more. And yet during the pandemic, because we were forced suddenly to isolate ourselves in fairly extreme ways, it drew attention to this loss that we all had felt for quite a while.

And it also caused many third places which were kind of hanging on, these legacy places, to close. And so we were kind of looking around and seeing that these little sometimes mom-and-pop stores in neighborhoods where people would tend to gather, little tiny coffee shops, or neighborhood taverns-- these were closing up because they didn't have the capital reserves to make it through a sustained period of closing. So we noticed more third places closing. But the main thing is we noticed how much we really wanted to return to them.

CATHY WURZER: And I'm betting because some of these third places have gone by the wayside, it's difficult to find a space to make friends.

RICHARD KYTE: Yeah. In fact, just yesterday, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about the increasing cost of friendship. People are buying gym memberships just so that they have a place to go and socialize on a regular basis. And ideally, what you want for friendship is a lot of free and easily accessible places and, ideally, places where people don't have to drive to every day to make it a destination. It's something that they can just drop into.

So we've gradually been designing more cities with zoning policies that don't allow commercial businesses in neighborhoods. And that's been a detriment. But we've made it more expensive for third places to exist because if you're creating a new business, it's hard to make money on a place in which the main function of it is people getting together for conversation.

CATHY WURZER: You know, I'm betting your book-- you've done a lot of research, obviously. But I wonder, did the book kind of take a turn? Did you ultimately end up writing about friendship?

RICHARD KYTE: Yeah, I envisioned when I started it that I was really going to write a fairly straightforward description of third places, what makes the best kinds of third places, and where you can find them. I started out doing that. But gradually, I came to see third places as a way of talking about our deep longing for social connection.

And I think that's why the term has picked up popularity in recent years, especially since the pandemic. It gives us a way to talk about friendship and our need for friendship because we know that deep down, we are social animals. We only really flourish when we're in the company of others.

That doesn't mean we can't have times when we're alone or we appreciate solitude. But we really depend, for a firm sense of self-identity, that we're socially situated in a network of fairly stable relationships. And so that's really what I ended up focusing most on-- was the need for friendship and this sense that we're gradually losing the opportunities for building and developing friendships.

CATHY WURZER: And of course, now we find ourselves in this epidemic of loneliness, as the US surgeon general has outlined. And I'm wondering, you're from rural Minnesota, right? I know you're from Frazee.

RICHARD KYTE: Yeah, Frazee, home of the world's largest turkey.

CATHY WURZER: That is true because I have seen it. So I'm betting that there were probably some pretty decent third places in Frazee back in the day.

RICHARD KYTE: Well, there were. There was Sue's Cafe right on Main Street. There was Dave's Bakery. There was a number of places. In fact, my dad had a paint store with a shop in the back where he did a lot of-- because it's a very little town, he wasn't selling enough paint to make a living. So he also repaired and sold antique furniture.

And I remember as a kid going down there. And people would be stopping by, sometimes walking in from the alley into the shop and back. And they're just sitting there, having a cup of coffee. This is the way-- and it still is this in many small towns, but especially rural areas, where there's these little informal gathering places that kind of pop up.

And they might be quite small, just for a few people. And then there's other kind of stable places that you can count on. And you see this often when you're driving through a town. You'll see the little cafe that's been there for generations or the tavern or something like this.

What I noticed, though, in my town is that many of these places have closed. There's now a convenience store, and they sell coffee and things. But there's no bakery anymore. The bowling alley doesn't have the same number of people, doesn't serve the same kind of social gathering function as it did decades ago because there's not as many people in the bowling leagues.

And so a lot of this-- we still have places, but they're legacy places. And many of the new places being developed are really built for cars. You drive through many new communities, and there's lots of drive-through places and things. But you don't see people outside of their cars, walking around and talking with one another.

CATHY WURZER: How can we, then, create new third places in this day and age? Do you have any ideas?

RICHARD KYTE: Yeah. I think, first of all, we change our zoning laws. And this is part of the movement called the new urbanism to allow the building of commercial places within neighborhoods. And then you increase walkability. You also focus on, for every new development, where are the parks? Are there libraries? Are there gyms? Are there a variety of things that allow communities to connect? And so you both allow it, but you also encourage it as part of community planning.

The other thing, frankly, is it is something that we have to do ourselves. We have to start thinking of friendship as a priority in our lives, not something that's left over for later. We need to say, I need to think every day about how I'm nurturing friendships, how I'm meeting new people.

And then the third thing is we have to make it part of our education. We should be teaching our children from very early age how to make friends and teach it as a skill that could be taught and learned and developed.

CATHY WURZER: That is a great way to end this. You gave us so much in the way of food for thought. Professor, thank you so very much.

RICHARD KYTE: Great to be here. I love the show.

CATHY WURZER: I appreciate it. Richard Kyte is a professor at Viterbo University in La Crosse and the author of Finding Your Third Place, which comes out June 25.

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