Community and the Disappearing Phenomenon of Third Spaces

Words by Tully (she/her) 16 QLD

Being a teenager can sometimes be awkward, tiring and, often, lonely.

Studies show that loneliness is on the rise for young people, especially girls aged between 15-24, with a quarter reporting that they often felt extremely lonely.

It’s harder when the quintessential and desperately needed third space is rapidly disappearing.

Making IRL connections is tough these days, especially for young people. It feels as if everything is going digital, and communities are feeling more distant. This is leaving young people craving spaces where they can just be themselves, with other people in their communities. But these spaces, known as third spaces, are rapidly disappearing, and its adding fuel to the loneliness fire.

Third spaces are a space outside of work/school and home, a third, more casual and social space. In ye olden days (before social media…) these would be places such as the bustling chatter of coffee shops, the rhythmic whirl of roller rinks, pre-planned and facilitated weekly classes at the libraries, well-funded youth centres for diverse and unique communities, and skate parks where the sound of wheels on concrete created a camaraderie of mentorship (and probably quite a few broken arms).

These once vibrant hubs served as incubators for friendships, shared experiences, and a sense of belonging. Third spaces are meeting spots for the community and are frequently represented in the media we consume: think of Lukes in “Gilmore Girls”, or Central Perk in “Friends”, and I can almost guarantee that, unless people in every sense of their being repulse you, everyone has seen one of these spaces in a TV show at one point or another and thought “I wish I had somewhere like that to hang out!”

It’s scary to go somewhere for the first time: am I intruding in a community not for me? Will I fit in? What if it’s not what I’m looking for? It doesn’t explicitly say that I’m welcome, so, am I? It’s also important to point out that in the past, many third spaces have been less then welcoming to minorities, so resolving this is of the upmost importance.

The most common and accessible third space, right now, is social media.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I’m not a social media basher! However, social media does have its’ own challenges. For one, we are faced with a constant onslaught of people who appear to be living a much better life than us –

As Gen Z have grown up with the ever-present fear of stranger danger drilled into us from a young age, and adding in a series of traumatic world events, social media can be so much easier than finding an accessible third space. But it can’t completely replace the need for physical ones.

Another reason for the decline in the physical third space is the decreased walkable nature of urban settings, with Australia being far more car-centric then our European cousins.

Without a driver’s license or access to safe and frequent footpaths, teens are stuck at home, instead of being able to utilise the already existing third spaces. The lack of reliable, frequent, and well routed public transport, particularly in regional towns, further restricts teens access to community spaces outside of their direct neighbourhood. Many times, I have found a haven, but it’s on the other side of town and I can’t get reliable, easy public transport so I can’t go regularly.

While third spaces have not been completely wiped out, they are rapidly becoming far less frequent and social. There are rare glimpses of the joy of third spaces: wonderful dog parks that I fell in love with (the dogs and the humans), the family friendly coffee shop back in my hometown, the toy library I volunteer at some Saturdays.

Yet, amidst these pockets of bliss, I find myself wondering why they fail to be around every corner – meeting places for everyone and every community, leaving so many people, especially teens, to lean on social media as a crutch during quieter days.

It’s a curious thought—why isn’t everyone blessed with a third space to retreat to daily? Maybe it’s the scarcity of such havens or the demands of modern life that leave us yearning for more.

Maybe being a teenager is just that: yearning for community, but unable to find it outside of a structured school environment.

I think it is critical to advocate for third spaces. It’s also crucial to amplify the voices of marginalised groups when discussing the importance of third spaces, actively involving them in the planning and development process to ensure that their needs and perspectives are prioritised and addressed. Centring their experiences and needs is essential in advocating for more inclusive and accessible community spaces, fostering a sense of belonging and connection for all members of the community, regardless of background, identity or age.

We need to advocate for more funding for public spaces, such as dog parks (and people parks I suppose…), free classes, library crafting times, youth hubs and walkable cities.

Community benefits EVERYONE, and the point of third spaces is an accessible form of community. I say, bring back the third spaces!!

 

Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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