Your third place is the place you go that isn’t home and isn’t work. It’s where you like to hang out – and ideally, it doesn’t cost you a cent. Jessica Rose of Women in Urbanism offers a few suggestions on improving Auckland’s third places for those who need them most.
At this year’s Urbanism New Zealand, Wellington architecture lecturer Minh Nguyen presented his research on designing public spaces for ‘active ageing’. He described senior people enjoying shared public spaces in Hong Kong where, unlike sprawly Auckland, public space is at a premium. These retirees were jamming, playing board games and generally loitering about in each other’s company. That’s not a common sight in Auckland’s senior community; what is common is depression, social isolation and loneliness. According to data compiled by Age Concern and District Health Boards, these feelings affect between 13% and one third of seniors. In Aotearoa, women have a longer life expectancy than men, which leaves them more likely to suffer these mental health issues.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Better consideration of accessibility, density, amenity and agency could help encourage mature adults use parks and public spaces in the way they were meant to: for socialising, laughter and play.
Older citizens commonly need to use walking, public transport or mobility scooters to get around, so accessibility is a basic need when going from A to B. Immediate and local becomes important: places that are en route to another destination, places where moving people is a priority over moving cars. Surfaces need to minimise slips, trips and falls. It’s simple for some people to manage broken sidewalks, but for others it’s a literal insurmountable barrier.
We need to live close together, in a comfortable yet compact way, in buildings that are well designed. Living closely in multi-generational apartment blocks means a short trip down the elevator to the street front, where a bigger potential costumer base means better local shopping. Pop a few seats in the pocket park at the end of the more densely housed street and senior people will have the opportunity to be our communities’ “eyes on the street” as well.
Few people appreciate just how important seating is to a successful public place – and that of all types of seating, the best is a moveable chair. Having some agency over seating and arranging space to suit the people using it helps create the sense of (temporary) ownership that is intrinsic to a third place. When you’re next in a park, look at how much seating is around and whether there is a table where friends could share a board game. Check if the seats can be moved. There are arguments against increased seating relating to rough sleepers or loitering teenagers, and, with moveable seating, the potential for theft. But underpinning these concerns are wider social issues that need to be addressed as a whole, not ignored at the cost of a large group of people’s wellbeing.
The seating issue raises another question. Google ‘senior people in parks’ and you get plenty of images like the one above: dudes hanging out, playing games, claiming the space. You don’t see many showing women doing the same thing. This is why we need to normalise a woman’s ‘right’ to be in a public space. We know women are more likely to hurry through the city in order to avoid verbal and/or physical harassment, or in the evenings, sexual assault. Women want to feel like they can be safe to sit in public as an individual and not have to travel in a pack for safety.
A couple of French pals recently started a group called Womenability, celebrating ‘a woman’s right to loiter’. They recently surveyed women all over the world, and came up with some urban interventions that can help. Women’s names on streets or places, art made by and for women, street murals and lighting, seating – all have a part to play. It’s difficult to have a third place that you can stop into if you don’t feel safe going to, or staying there by yourself.
A perfect example of what isn’t working for third places is playing out in Ponsonby right now. Popular local character Peter Rogers, proprietor of Real Time, has been threatened with prosecution if he continues with his ‘salon’ outside his shop. Urban Auckland is crying out for more of these third places – we shouldn’t be closing down ones people make for themselves. If Auckland hopes to become a city with a dense, thriving, safe and accessible CBD, it’s going to need to change how it permits and incentivises bringing the street to life. Trusting people who are behaving well and letting them police their own behaviour could work in some cases; the one size fits all model comes at a cost. Third places like Rogers’ don’t only benefit the people who frequent them. These are the type of community-created initiatives that help make women feel safe to go out at night and experience a place that is 50% theirs.
Shared amenities are another opportunity for third places, and they’ll become more important as we move towards smaller, more dense types of housing. Private enterprise can get involved too. Places like Brooklyn’s Laundromat-cafe or Portland’s Laundromat-pub can transform domestic chores – which, newsflash, women are still doing more than a fair share of – into potential social occasions.
So what third places is Auckland doing well? Playgrounds, it seems. Women are still more likely to be primary caregivers to children in Aotearoa, and playgrounds are something that Auckland Council and its local boards seem to be delivering very well in most parts of the city. A while ago I visited a friend living in a new development on the far fringes of West Auckland, the kind of place you could spend half a day just sitting in congestion to get to and from. As a newcomer to the area, she first found connections with neighbours through using the local playground with her children. Relationships developed and with them a sense of security knowing that when needing adult company, she could just turn up and a friend would be there.
The organisation I help run, Women in Urbanism, recently asked its 900+ Facebook followers about their views on playgrounds as third places. The feedback was consistent: playgrounds are third places that women who are mothers value and which they use. With a change in mindset and some concrete action, we could be making better third places for everyone, including the oldest in our communities.
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