introducing "the fourth place" & why "third places" have fallen short on their promise
reflections from 1 year of building The Commons
I was once a “third space enthusiast”. However, if the original spirit of the phrase was that of a physical place, outside of home and work, where authentic community thrived and social fabric intertwined - than the majority of today’s third spaces have fallen short of this noble ideal.
The spirit is not present in cafes brimmed with the clicking and clacking of laptops beneath hunched shoulders. Nor does it reside in a social or vocational club where favors are transacted and peacock feathers are unfurled. It is also not a bookstore, public space, library, gym, or bathhouse - where one bobbles in and out, amidst a sea of transient faces. Like empty calories, these interactions convey the veneer of community - yet ultimately leave us unsatisfied.
Spaces of this kind have their place in our lives, but we must be honest about what they are: a means to get one's needs met, against a backdrop of anonymous humans (with some occasional small talk speckled in). Unfortunately, Oldenburg’s vision for “the great good third place”, is only a shell of its original intention.
And maybe that’s okay. Perhaps third places like cafes, bars, salons, and the public spaces aforementioned, can continue existing as spaces with lite community vibes. But to illuminate a new category of community third spaces that strive to go deeper, we’ll need to create with more intention and concoct a new name.
Let’s call it the “fourth place.”
We have homes as first place, work as second place, public spaces as third place, and communities for meaning-making, as fourth place.
Why “place” and not “space”? Space is about objective geography. It only becomes a “place” when it is overlaid with emotional attachment and subjective meaning. A meaning that is crystallized through webs of rich social relationships by which collective memories are forged. Why “fourth”? Well, four comes after three.
Fourth places, or communities for meaning-making, parallel the role that churches serve, but with no dogma and strings attached. As secularism becomes more predominant, church attendance dwindles, and meaning-making becomes privatized - places that engender collective sense-making of ourselves, the world, and how we fit in it - are more important than ever.
As such, meaning-making in a supportive and consistent community is crucial. One wherein friendships are engendered in what Aristotle extolls as their highest form - a virtuous communion between souls exploring and understanding their place in the universe in tandem.
Unlike community spaces like social clubs or churches, a place for meaning-making rests on its non-prescriptiveness. There are no required rites to perform, nor cloaks of identities to don. Rather, it’s a safe container to be illegible, know nothing for certain, and question everything. To fumble, experiment, and channel ourselves in the messy process of becoming.
Instead of giving people meaning, a fourth place incites the conditions by which people find their own meaning, together and alone.
Taking a step back from the drone of daily routines, we can finally connect to the yearnings and musings of the soul, a truer and more primary experience of ourselves than what ordinary consciousness can offer.
A journey that’s only becoming more prevalent as we become increasingly resourced to detangle our social conditioning and trauma, explore various philosophies & schools of thought for living, and craft our lives as an authentic expression of who we really are.
And so the question remains, how do we actually create more “fourth places”?
When Adi and I asked ourselves this question 1 year into building a “fourth place” in SF called The Commons, the answers still felt unclear. What started out as just wanting a community living room to vibe in with friends, quickly escalated into something more nuanced.
The influx of thousands of member applications, hundreds of community-led events via Campus, and a loyal foundation of members, signaled that a nerve had clearly been struck.
Whether it was getting at the loneliness epidemic, the rise in secular meaning-making, a desire for intellectual and emotional playfulness, a safe space to share burgeoning questions and curiosities, or just a place to co-work and vibe with interesting people - we weren’t quite sure. The most recurring feedback we’d get would be somewhere along the lines of “I feel like I'm in college again” and “I don’t have to be anyone here, that’s refreshing”.
However, we picked up a plethora of clues and learnings on fourth-place building along the way:
You need shared contexts and shared interests. The reason why it’s difficult to make friends as an adult is because where there's shared context (seeing the same people over many months daily i.e. workplaces), there's a lack of shared interests. Where there's shared interest (hobby groups, bookclubs, etc), there's a lack of shared context. A place like the Commons creates both shared context and a container for shared interests, over a large body of time
Friendships grow strong across varying topologies when aided by readily available knobs. The evolution of our friendships often get pigeonholed in the context from which they first emerged. Work friends stay work friends, intellectual friends stay within that realm, emotional support friends stay out of the work realm, etc. Friendships that are multi-dimensional tend to be stronger. Putting relationships through both light and deep interactions, across different realms of human experience, enables the emergence of knobs both parties can metaphorically latch onto - thereby, swinging relationships into new territorial trajectories. Having a space that produces many ready-made knobs, makes that process a bit more frictionless. For eg. a deep intellectual salon, followed by light-hearted dancing, and then a stand-up comedy event.
Campus provides a low-stakes way to “try on a new way of being”, learn with social accountability, and experiment without hard committing. Each quarter we ask our members for classes, events, bookclubs, or circles they want to host. Many use this opportunity as a chance to engage with an interest more deeply - both as a leader, constructing the curriculum, and as a participant, consuming new intrigues. This safe container has the benefit of being shielded from the outside world of “being x” or “knowing y”, and also allows for meaning-making to be done within a feedback loop of mirroring humans, as opposed to in isolation.
Spaces that allow for all parts of ourselves, feel more human. One of our values is “holistic curiosity”. Which means being curious about the whole spectrum of experience – from the emotional and spiritual, to the technical and rational. We believe that the alignment of our mind, heart, and intuition enables us to embody our individual values at the truest level possible. How that translates in the space is through the plethora of events that range from research paper reading to emotional attunement workshops, meditation nights to Shakespearen book clubs. Naturally, this brings an aura of humanism to the space as all parts of ourselves are celebrated.
Good spaces provide bonding and bridging mechanisms. The field of urban planning first introduced the concept of public spaces that bond or bridge. The former serves to aid similar individuals to meet and reinforce ties. The latter bridges diverse people together to coexist and broaden one another’s perspectives. What seems to be working for us is to have aspects of both. During the weekdays we are a member-only space (bonding), followed by Sundays that are open to the public (bridging). Within our programming we have events based on specific interests (bonding), as well as events like potlucks, picnics, or unconferences, where everyone comes together (bridging).
Creating high density of not only people, but ideas and energy = serendipity and aliveness. Lewis Mumford writes that the primary purpose of the city is “to permit—indeed, to encourage—the greatest possible number of meetings, encounters, challenges, between varied persons and groups, providing as it were a stage upon which the drama of social life may be enacted.” If we see fourth places as a microcosm of a city, how could we design encounters and programming in a space to, frankly, induce organized chaos. In the early stages of Campus we spaced out our events to be back to back, but quickly realized that the space becomes more alive when we have differing types of events all occurring simultaneously. More organized randomness increases the chances that novel experiences and insights may alchemize. It’s also how nature tends to work.
Programming that reflects the process of inward exploration, external meaning-making, and informed self-expression. After hundreds of organic community-created events, we’ve noticed that they all seem to fall in one of these three categories. “Inward exploration” could be weekly reviews, going through the artists way together, authentic relating or meditation practice. “External meaning-making” involves discussing books and essays, reading research papers, or running salons on ethics, civics, human flourishing, etc. “Informed self-expression” could mean group pomodoros, hackathons, paint-nights, or morning writing clubs. Unsurprisingly, these categories map to the hero’s journey as well. Often times, varying parts of your life go through the process of inward reflection, meaning-making, and outward expression at different rates and stages. We learned that meaning-making is not a stagnant process, but a helicoid of action bolstered by sweltering plateaus of insight. Round and round we go in the process of self-actualization.
To be honest, the first year of The Commons was characterized by a lot of guesses, throwing a bit of everything at the wall, and seeing how things organically evolved. What stayed constant was the guidance of our old fashioned values and a cast of willing experimenters who came along for the ride.
We still have a ways to go in fulfilling the truest potential of what a fourth place can be, but we are grateful to have a bright north-star to follow and an opportunity to figure out “the hows” at our own pace and in our own style (not VC-backed, yay!).
In the next semester of Campus (you can apply here), we’re going to take our learnings after a year to completely restructure the curriculum in service of our mission that still remains steadfast:
Gathering the earnest, playful, abundant, and curious, to explore, express, and create together. Believing that when we meaning-make whilst in community, collective flourishing and self-actualization is the inevitable by-product 🌱🪄
What will that new Campus structure look like? I’ll share more in the next essay. Onwards!
Thank you for taking the time to read this essay 🙏
I’m currently seeking to connect with co-conspirators, advisors, and anyone who is very interested in furthering this work. If this is you please feel free to DM me on Twitter or get in touch via my website.