Why the 15-Minute City Needs a Good Bar

It's a "third space" that's different from home or office and is more important than ever.

Gem restaurant down the street

The Gem/ Lloyd Alter

The 15-minute city has been the topic of the moment — or perhaps the quarter-hour. Proposed by Carlos Moreno, scientific director and professor at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, the idea has been interpreted by C40 Cities as a place where "everyone is able to meet most, if not all, of their needs within a short walk or bike ride from their home." These "lived-in, people-friendly, ‘complete’ and connected neighborhoods," in turn, would "improve cities' sustainability and livability" by empowering people to connect with their local area and services.

These days, many cities are anything but complete; it seems almost anywhere you want to meet is closed or papered over. Writing for Bloomberg's Citylab, Allie Volpe reminds us that these neighborhood hangouts, from bars to restaurants to gyms, are what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called "third places" in his 1999 book "The Great Good Place," with the book-length subtitle "Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community." (Home and Work are the first and second places.)

Volpe worries that they might be gone forever, writing:

Several kinds of third spaces were already on the decline pre-pandemic.  A 2019 paper found that the number of religious and recreation centers have been dwindling in the U.S. since the start of the Great Recession in 2008. Lead author  Jessica Finlay, a research fellow at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research’s Survey Research Center, fears the pandemic will be the death knell for a large population of brick-and-mortar third places. “I am worried that, long-term, our neighborhoods and our communities will look completely different,” she says.
Bar in Kent, Ohio
Bar in Kent, Ohio/ Lloyd Alter

I first learned about third spaces from lawyer and author Kaid Benfield, when he asked "Does a Sustainable Community Need a Good Drinking Establishment?" He got the idea of bars as third spaces from Michael Hickey, who wrote for Shelterforce:

"The vaunted 'third space' isn’t home, and isn’t work—it’s more like the living room of society at large. It’s a place where you are neither family nor co-worker, and yet where the values, interests, gossip, complaints and inspirations of these two other spheres intersect. It’s a place at least one step removed from the structures of work and home, more random, and yet familiar enough to breed a sense of identity and connection. It’s a place of both possibility and comfort, where the unexpected and the mundane transcend and mingle. And nine times out of ten, it’s a bar."

In the post-pandemic hybrid era, the spaces don't so easily separate into first, second, and third; the home becomes an office, the coffee shop becomes a meeting room, and the bar, as Hickey describes it, is more of a living room. Needed more than ever as a place to get away from those mixed up first and second places.

A decade ago, Benfield pointed out the sustainability and livability benefits the 15-minute city crowd is promoting now when discussing complete communities, including bars:

"What does this have to do with sustainability? Well, quite a bit, in my opinion. The more complete our neighborhoods, the less we have to travel to seek out goods, services and amenities. The less we have to travel, the more we can reduce emissions. People enjoy hanging out in bars and, especially if they are within walking distance of homes, we can also reduce the very serious risks that can accompany drinking and driving."

I wondered what Benfield thought of third places in these mixed-up times. He tells Treehugger it's too soon to tell, as pandemic recovery is still a work-in-progress.

"Here in the DC area, the spring weather has been glorious and people are clamoring to get out, at least to places with outdoor tables. I walked past a row of cafes and restaurants on Sunday and the outdoor spaces in the better ones were jammed," says Benfield. "I'm still a little personally reluctant to spend more than a few minutes indoors, so I don't know about those places, including gyms (I need to return to mine but haven't yet) and libraries."

He adds: "Definitely, some retailers and restaurants didn't survive the winter, but most of the more established ones made it (probably barely) with internet sales and delivery. I hope some new ones spring up (one restaurant already has in our neighborhood) as the recovery continues. We'll see, I guess."

I remain hopeful that we will see more people working from home or their local coworking space, supporting their local shops and stores, The first, second, and third spaces may be more muddled in the 15-minute city, but they will be back. And so will the bar.

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