October 2, 2005

Missing In Most Of Suburbia: An Outdoor “Third Place”

When it's a gorgeous autumn day in suburbia and you want to spend the day outside, what do you do? Where do you go? If you don't want to hang out in your own backyard or head out for a nature day hiking or a sports activity, what are your options? Where can you head to, to enjoy the day and just BE, in a public place with some family or friends?

I'm talking about what's known in planning circles as a "third place" - besides your home and your job, a third place where you can regularly and reliably go to spend time. To many, the ideal is something like those places portrayed on TV shows such as Cheers or Friends (the Central Perk coffee shop). But communities also need outdoor "third places" to have that sense of place, that soul, that make some cities and towns so appealing and others feel somewhat sterile.

For me in Framingham, it's often the beautiful Garden in the Woods, a wonderful place to take a hike or a stroll in nature. But the Garden's mission isn't first off to be that kind of third place, and it really isn't. Although they run occasional programs, the New England Wildflower Society is primarily a natural and educational area. It's not like Geneva's botanical garden, which also has an outdoor cafe where you can sit outside and have lunch, or a snack, or a glass of wine/beer (although there are plenty of benches along the trails if you want to stay and relax).

Great cities have a number of outdoor third places. In Boston, there's the Commons and Public Garden, as well as parks along the waterfront, not to mention Newbury Street - a place to stroll, shop and sit out at a cafe to chat and people watch. In Montreal, the small neighborhood park in St. Louis Square features a place selling ice cream, drinks and other snacks as well as tables to sit, eat and linger.

In the U.S., though, it's relatively rare for suburbs to have such spaces, and that's a pity. In Europe, even small towns usually have a town square where there's a cafe and/or other places people not only can hang out outside for an afternoon - they do. Creating such outdoor third places in our suburbs would truly add to quality of life - if properly designed. What you don't want is some useless "open space" set off from the rest of the community, where you're more likely to get underage kids drinking beer that a cross-section of residents out enjoying the weather and each other's company.

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