All people need community, and community occupies physical space. Home and work have been called the first and second places in everyday life, but the title of ‘third place’ has moved around restlessly. The first time I heard the term ‘third place’, it was in reference to the shopping mall—how the mall had once served as the most important social center outside of home and work. The article I read spoke of how these places were dying—probably ceding the geographic locus of commerce to some data center in Ashburn, Virginia.

People decrying a loss of social cohesion in American society often point to our lack of ‘third places’. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg has a new term for them: ‘Social Infrastructure’. In a recent 99% Invisible podcast episode, he paints these places, like parks and libraries, as necessary hardware for urban society. It only makes sense. In our relatively secular, individualistic culture, the church and the family are not as central as they once were. For better or worse, people are seeking alternatives.

Listening, I felt equal parts fascination and shame. The fascination stemmed from the research he cites regarding the great benefit of public spaces—how they can radically transform neighborhoods for the better. Shame enters in when I consider the role that Christian individuals and families have in making people feel welcomed and cared for. If taxation and coercion is required to build a place where the stranger is welcome, what has gone wrong?