Molly Osberg’s recent essay, Inside the Barista Class, struck a cord as I left the service world not too long ago (though it feels forever ago.) Though written about New York, the piece is quite applicable to San Francisco as well, but it was a simple sentence that I almost missed toward the end that really captivated me. “While the framing of the third place may have been useful for Starbucks’ promotional materials, Oldenburg’s theory really didn’t account for the realities of capitalism: that private business creates narrow spaces.”
As a lover of design who is fascinated by ways to create community, Ray Oldenburg’s idea of ‘third places’ has stuck with my since freshman year of college. In a city like San Francisco, there are many places to socialize but few qualify as true third places according to Oldenburg’s definition because few are ‘levelers,’ open places without status barriers. Instead, the majority are narrow spaces. In a city with real estate as expensive as San Francisco, how can we move from narrow space to true third spaces?
While many small businesses that have functioned as third spaces struggle to pay rising rents, one significant steps San Francisco has taken is to require large downtown developments to include privately-owned public open spaces (POPOS.) POPOS often aren’t welcoming spaces for the public, however, as the delineation between public and private can be unclear and many of the spaces have security who discourage lingering or groups. POPOS are also largely outdoors which limits their use to sunny days and they often lack amenities. For example, on the POPOS and Public Art Map, only two spaces offer food, bathrooms, and seating. If any of those is missing, the space can only be a transitional space, not a place for extended socializing.
If San Francisco, or any city, is to prioritize third spaces then it needs to find ways to encourage local businesses that serve the mass population as well as free public spaces with amenities.