Guest post: Three things I’ve learned in my local coffee shop

By Steve MacDouell

If you were to walk into my neighbourhood coffee shop, you’d see the usual suspects: Joey, a body and mind professional, who would be talking to someone about Finnish saunas, metal music, and the human condition; Arielle, the local city councillor, who would be conversing with her constituents about their ideas and hopes for the neighbourhood; Alexis, a writer, who would be sipping an americano, plugging away at her book, and scrolling through funny dog gifs; and Brittney, Jen, and Emily, three friends who, on a weekly basis, come together to talk about the joys and complexities of life all the while trying to keep their pre-school aged children occupied. This coffee shop, like many others, is a place where people are invited to sit, to catch up on some email, and to, potentially, encounter a few of their neighbours — all while enjoying a hot, caffeinated beverage.

Third places — that is, places where people can enjoy the company of others outside of their workplaces and homes — are critical to the well-being of our neighbourhoods. From public parks and libraries to pubs and playgrounds, these places are impacting our localities in both subtle and significant ways. For our communities to thrive, we need third places where ideas can be shared, where everyone is welcome to belong, and where relationships, over time, can be fostered. Ray Oldenburg, urban sociologist and author of The Great Good Place, emphasizes the importance of these kinds of places in this way:

“Most needed are those ‘third places’ which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life…Though a radically different kind of setting from the 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.”

After a few years of sitting in the same coffee shop, I’ve come to realize that third places have much to teach us about our neighbourhoods and the people we share them with.

In the spirit of celebrating the third places in our cities, here are three things that I’ve learned in my local coffee shop:

People want to linger in places where they can be seen, heard, and known

There is something about your local barista knowing your coffee order that grounds you in a place. It’s one of the small, subtle ways that I started to feel like a character in the story of my neighbourhood. This vague familiarity would go on to spark brief conversations between the staff and I, which led to more robust exchanges around our unique interests, our vocational endeavours, and our shared hopes for the neighbourhood. They began to introduce me to other locals in the shop which led to more conversations and to a broader network of connection. Additionally, the shop is small, so sharing tables with my neighbours became a normal practice. At times, these shared table experiences sparked meaningful interactions, and at other times, it just led to more spilt coffee. As weeks turned into months, strangers became friends, a sense of community started to be formed, and feelings of familiarity began to take root.

It’s often within the relational ecosystem of a local coffee shop that we encounter the people we’ve actually shared close proximity with for a long time. We start to put names to faces that we’ve seen in passing, and we begin to feel a little more noticed ourselves—which taps into our human longing to know others and be known by others. In this sense, coffee shops provide far more than local economic benefits and enjoyable products; they offer a space where trust can be formed — and where hospitality can be extended — between neighbours. While turning up, sipping coffee, and being open to connection seems like a small act, the cumulative impact of doing so can’t be quickly dismissed.

People long for places where contextual ideas—for the common good of the neighbourhood—can be inspired

The collision of humanity that occurs in a local coffee shop has a way of catalyzing ideas that, if leveraged well, can go on to improve the well-being of our neighbourhoods. This occurs, in part, because the individuals who spend time in these places will have some sense of the contextual opportunities that exist locally and because the social nature of a coffee shop can lend itself to a high concentration of neighbourly interactions. Over the years, spending time in my local coffee shop has opened up different collaborate engagements with my neighbours: from cocktail nights, dinner parties, and social clubs to playgroups, TED-style events, and tactical urbanism projects. The seeds of these ideas were planted and cultivated through ongoing conversations over lattes and laptops.

The local impact that can come out of a coffee shop is nothing new; historically, these places have played a key role in shaping the social, political, creative, and intellectual pursuits of cities. Take, for example, the coffeehouses of London in the 1670s. The open, political dialogue that occurred in these places was subversive enough that it caused nervousness in the powers that be, so much so that Charles II tried to have them shut down. If you were looking to be involved in political dialogue during the French Revolution, you could find it in a Parisian café, and if you were an anti-Communist dissident in Prague after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, you could conspire with kindred spirits at Café Slavia. Some, like German sociologist and philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, have even gone on to argue that the coffeehouses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped lay the foundation for the liberal Enlightenment.

While revolution might not break out in our local coffee shops, these important places still inspire dialogue, ideas, and collaboration, all of which can go on to make a tangible impact on neighbourhoods and cities.

People are attached to the places that they experience with all of their senses

Over the past few years, I’ve taken a number of road trips across the United States. Whenever I’m in a new city, I try to sit in a few local coffee spots to taste their product, to meet a few locals, and to get a sense of what’s happening in the neighbourhood. While I’ve enjoyed some great coffee and met some interesting people along the way, I’ve always felt like a visitor in these places—and this makes sense. The coffee tastes a little different than what I’m used to; the aesthetic, while often similar, is not quite the same as my local coffee shop; and the people are friendly, but I’m not connected to their stories in the same way that I am to those of my neighbours. Visiting these places is always a welcomed experience, but it never quite feels like home.

The hours I’ve spent in my local coffee shop have increased my level of attachment to my neighbourhood and the people who inhabit it—which, over time, has made me less likely to dream of being somewhere else. While I love to travel, being elsewhere has made me more appreciative of the people and the places that are familiar, reminding me of just how much I continue to receive within the ordinary rhythms of life in the places I call home.

Third places play a critical role in the strength, resilience, and interconnectedness of our cities. Whether your third place is a coffee shop, a community centre, or a local McDonald’s, spending time in these places can move us toward the people, the stories, and the opportunities that exist all around us. While these places will not solve all of the urgent problems that our cities face, the tangible benefits that they offer our communities should be celebrated.


Steve MacDouell is a professor at @FanshaweCollege in London, Ontario, and a senior community fellow at @TheGoodCityCo, a civic organisation that creates projects to help citizens take greater ownership over the places they call home. Steve also writes posts on community formation, place and neighbourliness. This post originally appeared on Steve’s own blog.

Supporting markets to survive and thrive

For around a thousand years, the London Borough Market has existed in one form or another.  It has survived fire, flood, plague and war – and on the 3rd of June this year, a terrorist attack.  The market has since reopened, with traders determined to continue their work and serve the local community.

Although many markets are a historic part of their host towns and cities, they are far from being relics.  Indeed, in recent years markets have experienced something of a revival.  In London alone, since 2010, the number of street markets has grown from 162 to over 250.

There are clear reasons for this – markets offer consumers and traders a number of benefits, and they make significant contributions to the economic, social and political health of towns and cities.

Economic impact of markets

Indeed, in 2015, the Institute of Place Management (IPM) conducted a comprehensive review of the impact of markets and found that markets not only have a significant turnover, they also impact indirectly on the wider economy – meaning that the £3.5 billion turnover directly attributable to retail markets is actually worth around £10.5 billion to the UK economy.

The Portas review in 2011 hailed markets as a potential saviour of the high street.  Indeed, the IPM review supports this, reporting that markets can help to increase town centre footfall by up to 25%.  This has significant economic potential.  In London, market visitors spend around £752 million per annum in nearby shop-based retailers.

Markets were also found to:

  • act as a significant employer, both nationally and at the local level
  • support intergenerational economic mobility (through family-owned businesses)
  • support the development of entrepreneurial skills in young people through ‘youth markets’
  • act as business incubators and support business formation due to their low barriers to entry, for example, enabling migrants to set up their own businesses
  • enable small businesses to reach larger businesses whom they can supply, and support other local businesses, such as farmers.
  • encourage high street diversity and create a distinct ‘identity’ for high streets
  • promote high street resilience, as they are flexible and able to respond quickly to changing demands.
  • help to utilise vacant and underused spaces within high streets
  • attract tourists, who are drawn to them because they are “unique, quirky, unusual”

Wider benefits

Markets also have a number of social purposes.  They are important places of social interaction, which facilitate community cohesion and social inclusion.  Markets can also help to improve public health and quality of life through the provision of fresh, quality produce at lower price points, which may be particularly beneficial for low-income families.

From an environmental perspective, there are also a number of benefits arising from the sale and purchase of locally produced products, including reducing pollution associated with high ‘food miles’ and reducing the need for consumers to travel to out-of-town sites, such as large retail parks, in order to make their purchases.

Challenges

Although there is overwhelming evidence that almost every street, food and farmer’s market is an invaluable asset to its local community, markets still face a number of very real threats.  These include:

  • the rise of out-of-town shopping centres, the dominance of big supermarkets, and the popularity of online shopping
  • planning and regulatory regimes that do not allow for, or restrict, the expansion or establishment of markets
  • a lack of support for markets or poor management by local authorities
  • high land values making it difficult for markets to be established

As many markets are a lifeline for areas experiencing deprivation, it is important that they receive the support that they require to survive and flourish.

Promoting and supporting markets

So, what can be done to support markets?  Earlier this year, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced plans to establish the London Markets Board – a team of experts tasked with delivering a London markets strategy, and work to preserve and promote London’s increasing number of markets.

On a wider scale, NABMA (National Association of British Market Authorities) and the National Market Traders Federation recently published a ‘five-year manifesto’, which made a number of recommendations for ways to support markets.

A key recommendation is that local authorities work to raise the profile of markets.  There are many market-focused national initiatives such as Love Your Local Market, the National Youth Market, and the Great British Market Awards, which local authorities can become involved in.

The Love Your Local Market campaign, for example, is an annual event, established in 2012, which brings together markets across the UK.  It aims to build affection and support for markets in local communities, and offers free or subsidised pitches to start-ups to test trading conditions.  In 2013, it increased footfall in participating town centres by 10%.

Other recommendations to support markets include:

  • greater recognition of the role of markets in local economies, jobs and growth, as well as in civic local society
  • ensuring that retail markets have a voice in policy making that affects them, including planning and town centre management
  • further lifting the current burden of business rates for SMEs
  • supporting greater awareness of the sector’s employment opportunities including apprenticeships, platforms for self-employment and training hubs
  • developing and supporting sector-led initiatives that aim to support entrepreneurship and increase the amount of businesses on markets, and support them digitally
  • encouraging schools and further education establishments to work with market operators to enable people entering the labour market to embrace markets as a possible career

There are some promising signs.  Around £90 million has been invested into improving markets since 2014, and an increasing number of local authorities are making them central to town centre plans and regeneration activity.

By promoting and supporting markets in this way, the economic, social and environmental benefits can be maximised. As the 2015 review of markets underlines: “markets are an important asset to a location, and their future cannot be left to chance.”