Ray Oldenburg is an urban sociologist who writes about the importance of informal public gathering places; Third Places. Throughout his work, and particularly in his book Celebrating The Third Place (2000), Oldenburg identifies "third places" as the public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. The phrase 'third places' derives from considering our homes to be the 'first' places in our lives, and our work places the 'second.' In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. Third places "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work." Oldenburg explains that beer gardens, main streets, pubs, cafés, coffeehouses, post offices, and other third places are the heart of a community's social vitality. Providing the foundation for a functioning democracy, these spaces promote social equity by leveling the status of guests, providing a setting for grassroots politics, creating habits of public association, and offering psychological support to individuals and communities. Most needed are those 'third places' which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life. Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places.
The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends. They are the heart of a community's social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.
Totally unlike Main Street, the shopping mall is populated by strangers. As people circulate about in the constant, monotonous flow of mall pedestrian traffic, their eyes do not cast about for familiar faces, for the chance of seeing one is small. That is not part of what one expects there. The reason is simple. The mall is centrally located to serve the multitudes from a number of outlying developments within its region. There is little acquaintance between these developments and not much more within them. Most of them lack focal points or core settings and, as a result, people are not widely known to one another, even in their own neighborhoods, and their neighborhood is only a minority portion of the mall's clientele.
Cafes are an outstanding example of the research and development of third places, spaces between home and work that serve a range of purposes, the missing link of public space with private access that is crucial and necessary for quality and complementing communities.