The ins and outs of “third placemaking” – Q&A with Aat Vos

Third Places 25 Aug 2020

Public spaces should energize and inspire us on a societal level through interaction and communication. All visitors to a public space should feel welcome and have an equal chance to participate. Design plays a crucial and increasingly important role in revitalizing spaces. It is a catalyst for bringing people together, sparking conversation along with the transfer of knowledge and ideas. As a creative guide and architect, Aat Vos is dedicated to reviving the public domain. He evokes social change through the design of third places. His mission: creating places where people feel welcome.

Event at Deichman Grünerløkka Library, Oslo
Event at Deichman Grünerløkka Library, Oslo

According to Aat Vos, one of the best ways to help societies achieve inclusivity is to create places for people to meet. Meeting sets the stage to discuss, debate, form opinions, share knowledge, inspire, or simply hang out together. These are “Palaces for the People”, as US sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls them, or “Third Places” as urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg has defined them.

  • Oldenburg, a major source of inspiration to Aat Vos, talks about one’s home as the “first place”.
  • The workplace or school/university – where people may spend most of their time, is referred to as the “second place”.
  • Last but not least, “third places” are the anchors of community life because they facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction.

The third place is found in the public domain, usually in the form of community centers, libraries, parks, start-up cafés, or idea hubs. Or at least, that is the ideal. However, a certain development has been worrying Vos for years: The public domain has increasingly fallen victim to commercialization, an unsettling trend that has systematically reduced the number of genuinely public spaces, as well as their visitor numbers.

The financial threshold that many places create, such as entrance fees or the requirement of purchase, automatically excludes those who cannot afford to pay. This economic discrimination has led to public spaces losing touch with their true purpose: providing a home away from home to all members the public, regardless of income level, gender, nationality, race, religion, age, political beliefs, or sexual preference.

This development inspired Aat Vos to rally against the physical and societal division of people by publishing his book 3RD4ALL – How to Create a Relevant Public Space in 2017. This book includes more than 20 in-depth interviews, with experts such as Sociology professor Saskia Sassen and designer Karim Rashid. It provides cutting-edge insight into both the present and the future of our public domain and how to create relevant third places.

Aat Vos – Creative Guide
Aat Vos – Creative Guide

Why Third Places?

It all started with a dissatisfied customer in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis. I was commissioned to furnish a library – I did what an architect usually does and the customer was satisfied.

A few months later, a contractor called me.

She was composing a shortlist of architects to design a library and told me I was one of the lucky few. Ironically, it was the same library customer I had worked for in the months prior. Someone seemed not to be too happy with my first design after all. I called this client and asked for a second chance; I did the same work again, but the client wasn’t satisfied this time either, and again didn’t tell me. 

What happened to the project?

The assignment ended up in a European procurement procedure, which I was persuaded by a colleague to try to win. Again, I visited the same client’s provisional library where they suggested grabbing a coffee. At the top of the building, there was a previously unused room that the visitors had started to take over; they had even brought over their own furniture. Amidst the collection of sofas, tables and chairs,  the staff noticed this initiative and started offering coffee and magazines.

The visitors had slowly and steadily made the room their own and seemed satisfied with it. “We call it our living room,” said the client who had clearly discovered something I had overlooked. It was there and then I understood what we were going to do in the upcoming contest. 

How did you translate this ‘aha moment’ into practice?

I invited the contractor and his crew to join the design team, along with the intern and some friends.

We set off to design our ultimate urban living room which still met most of the requirements of the design brief but was not dictated by it.

The result?

We won the tender! Then two things happened: On the night before the opening, I sat down at the library-turned-living room and found myself not glorying in all the architectural features, but simply enjoying the atmosphere. I felt at home, which, as an architect, was a novel experience for me.

However, the real turning point came weeks later, when I received an email from an unknown man who wrote just a few words:

“Thank you, for creating a place that makes me happy to leave my home for the first time in four years.”

Those lines struck a chord and made me realize my work wasn’t about me but that architecture should be an instrument for achieving a higher goal. I decided to investigate the subject of third places, and started by reading the books of Ray Oldenburg, Joseph Pine (The Experience Economy 2019), and Diane Ghirardo (Architecture after Modernism 1996) again.

That is how the idea of the book 3RD4ALL – How To Create a Relevant Public Space came along, sparking an ongoing research process to learn about the arguments and conditions for third places.

People often assume that “public domain” refers to free accessible outdoor places like parks or squares. However, the work of aatvos has a wider scope. How do you define “public”? 

To answer this, I turn to the theories of some of my heroes.

The modern idea ‘public’ probably starts with the German Philosopher Jürgen Habermas, as he wrote ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’, where he said: “The public sphere is a virtual or imaginary community which does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space,” and on ‘public’ he explained: “events and occasions are ‘public’ when they are open to all, in contrast to closed or exclusive affairs”.

According to the communications scholar Gerhard A. Hauser, public places are “discursive spaces in which individuals and groups associate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment about them”.

In other words, ‘public’ is what we share in our communities. Public is what belongs – or should belong or has belonged – to all of us.

As for the physical part, public places are accessible to all, usable by all, have a very low threshold, and are both safe and comfortable. In this way, they can be used over a longer period. As for the programming part, public places applaud user participation and invite the public to take ownership. They facilitate a stay with a good cup of coffee, clean toilets and charge no admission.

‘Public’ is about sharing and caring, about contributing to our society and ensuring it is a good place to live for all of us.

Aat Vos Aat Vos Creative Guide

What should be the starting point when it comes to creating relevant public spaces?

Everything always starts with asking yourself, ‘Why?’.

Inspired by author Simon Sinek, ‘The Why’ describes what the objective is, the deeper intrinsic motivation. In other words, why does a public space exist and why does it matter for others? To answer this question, thorough user research is needed. ’The Why’ is the basis of each project: it determines the mentality.

Everyone who is involved in the project’s further processing and implementation must be aware of the project’s unique principles and actively apply them.

How do you feel about the development that combines both public and commercial spaces? 

It is a positive development. I believe in a clever fusion of mixed programs. For instance, public functions in the public space should go together with commercial functions.

An example is Deichman Stovner Library situated in a shopping mall in an Oslo suburb. It is a highly commercial environment. Nonetheless, it has an important local social function. Here, daily groceries, reading a newspaper in the library, and meeting up with friends for a drink are all possible under the same roof. Only by combining public and commercial can we realize a multiform environment, a more vital, more livable society that everyone can call their own.

It’s time we look beyond solely the financial return on developments and also consider the return in the shape of social inclusivity and individual mental health.

Do you notice a shift between first, second and third place? For example, can someone’s workplace, a common second place, also have a third-place function?

Definitely. For example, our client Gebäudewirtschaft der Stadt Köln (Cologne, Germany) asked us to help them rethink their office floors to improve the overall appreciation of the working environment. As the employees no longer felt at ease at their workplace, we were asked to improve individual working conditions and to create a happier, healthier work environment. 

We will improve the initial situation by, among other things, opening up the building with public social space, a kind of ‘internal third place’. This was preceded by intensive conduct investigations on the team members’ reported drawbacks and hindrances of the space.

In the #aatvoslibraries functional design is frequently combined with bespoke furniture, vintage pieces, and quirky elements. What is the philosophy behind this signature design? 

Before I go deeper into our unique design, let me clarify that we consider the interior design of public spaces as urban design on a different scale level. Kevin Lynch, an American urban planner and author, described in his book ‘The Image of the City’ (1960) that both predictable elements and landmarks (“identifiable objects which serve as external reference points”) are key ingredients in creating mental maps of understandable – and therefore safe – environments.

That is the philosophy behind our focus on both a classic, almost predictable atmosphere, on the one hand, combined with ‘landmarks’ and adventurous elements on the other. 

How do you come up with these signature surprises?

To find these elements, my team and I dive into the community we work for. To us, working on public space means creating places for people that are not us in locations that are not ours – but for the public in their own neighborhood.

Talking to and working with users is both essential and inevitable. We use methods such as Design Thinking in cooperation with experts such as Design Thinking specialist and trainer Julia Bergmann (Germany) to figure out local needs and necessities as well as associations and fascinations.

Very often, we run into unexpected stories, heritage and socio-cultural elements that are very important to local communities or even to specific user groups. We use these local anchors to create special eye-catchers for each project. Together with the more ‘predictable’ surroundings, they create safe, bespoke places that act as mental addresses.

Thanks to remodeled diving chambers, spaceships, tailor-made coal mining lifts and the occasional giant cuddle rabbit, the places we create become ‘somewheres’ rather than an ‘anywheres’.

What has changed since the publication of your book 3RD4ALL in 2017?

First of all, ‘third placemaking’ has become a contemporary social topic. The growing awareness of their necessity makes it easier to put the theme on the public agenda than before.

Second, I got internationally recognized as a third place specialist and became a speaker on the topic. At the same time, more and more clients found their way to my company, which made it possible to expand.

Today, I work with an inspiring multidisciplinary team that combines their experience in architecture, marketing, economics, sociology, psychology and communication to serve a wide variety of clients such as governmental organizations, municipalities, libraries, theaters, universities and health organizations.

In our work it is not only about creating third places, but largely about sharing knowledge about them.

Aat Vos Aat Vos Creative Guide

What has also changed are, of course, the insights that we gained with 3RD4ALL. In the book, five pillars of a relevant public space were leading: People, Place, Experience, Product and Future. By putting the theory of the book into practice in our projects, these pillars have been further developed into the Butterfly Principles of Design for Programmability. This butterfly-shaped model clearly shows that there is both a non-physical and physical side to each project. The Butterfly Principles are best explained through 10 questions and provide a simple toolkit to determine the ingredients that shape healthy public places. 

What happens after redesigning libraries and transforming them into third places?

After redesigning a number of libraries in Norway, Germany and the Netherlands, we wondered: Do libraries play a more social role in modern society?

In spring 2019, we reached out to 20 libraries, that we had worked with over the past three years. These projects underwent big physical changes and are either remakes, renovations or remodels of existing libraries. We sent them a questionnaire asking whether the numbers of (random) visitors and the involvement of current visitors within the libraries and their activities had changed. The results of the questionnaire showed a very positive trend.

Can you give some examples?

After opening, 73% of the respondents saw more people visit their place just to spend time. It also turned out that more people mingle when visiting the library. Our preliminary conclusion from this ongoing investigation is that libraries who have transformed from a cultural institute into a more welcoming third place are catering to more elementary needs and playing a new key role in modern society. Being both a physical and social place, they address all levels of Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs – they not only enable people to reach self-actualization and gain esteem, but they also provide people with a sense of belonging. 

What is the most important factor when it comes to long-term relationships between a third place and its visitors?

Ownership and adaptability, without a doubt. People should be allowed to take ownership of a place, and that place should be able to adapt itself to the ever-changing needs of its users.

Clients of aatvos are scattered among many European countries, all with different cultures. Did you notice distinct perspectives regarding the conditions of public design? 

We have experienced differences, yet not difficulties.

We travel a lot to visit our clients and see both similarities and differences in our projects. This in itself is very enriching. It helps us to improve our methods.

For instance, one of the tools we use to understand local preferences is our set of card games, where a representative group of end users is asked to select a preference out of a selection of a hundred cards. A sample category is Look & Feel. We noticed that the resulting preferences were different in northern Norway compared to the South of Germany, so we developed an underlying matrix that helped us to better understand this diversity in taste and needs.

So yes, there is variation because of unique cultural backgrounds, local history or even climate for that matter. But there are also similarities – interestingly enough, mainly in terms of spatial needs.

The more we travel, the more we understand that the need for a certain typology is universal – whereas the final layer, the design if you like, can create the local distinction.

The aatvos team recently debuted its first series of digital workshops. How did it go?

We started developing remote workshops (blogpost coming soon, subscribe to the newsletter) at the beginning of 2020 because of a request from Australia. This was some weeks before our lives were altered by the COVID-19 outbreak. In an unfortunate global situation, we were very lucky with the timing for developing these interactive digital sessions. Just like in our physical workshop weeks, we use tools like card games and polls, now through screens.

We recently held a fruitful remote workshop week (5 days) with a client from Ramallah, Palestine. Despite the success of our remote workshops, they can’t beat the real thing.

Our favorite interactions include the personal meeting with the project team, visiting the location, the local connection and the inspiration we get on the spot.

Public spaces, like libraries, are currently under great pressure due to new health regulations. How do you see the future development of public space?

This development raises important questions for everyone involved, from librarians, visitors and governmental organizations to other stakeholders.

Questions arise such as, how can we remain a low-threshold entrance to public spaces or how can we stimulate public programming? However, currently the most pressing question is: Do we need to intervene in our projects’ interiors and exteriors to ensure a safe future environment?

Respecting regulations while rethinking spatial context is key.

Examples include adding more outdoor areas such as an open-air play area or a roofed café terrace with ample seating space. However, we must also provide the individual visitor with safe areas. This can be done via the interior with a table for each person, seating cocoons for one, individual study spaces, etc. 

We are at the very beginning of a learning process about using the public domain differently. We must also explore and investigate the urban space on which our projects border. Perhaps even more important, local communities should be encouraged to take back institutional functions, like through Asset-Based Community Development.

People should be empowered to take ownership of the many unused public areas in urban environments, like rooftops, areas under bridges, building lobbies or public space in residential buildings. 

Public space developers need to learn from this episode and reflect on the health and safety measures’ consequences for social interaction, and yes, also for third placemaking. Although the approach is different in some countries, such as Norway and Sweden, if one thing has become clear to me in recent months, it is the indispensability of the public domain.

To be continued! 

Pearls of the public

Eight extraordinary destinations to (re)discover the public domain.

  1. Third places under bridges, like for example in Tokyo (Japan) between Musashisakai Station and Higashikoganei Station, or The Bentway in Toronto (Canada).
  2. Public rooftops, like the multistairs rooftop of NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam (The Netherlands), the rooftops farms of Brooklyn Grange in New York (USA) or, Luchtpark (Air Park) Hofbogen in Rotterdam (The Netherlands). 
  3. Libraries with redefined typology, like Deichman Bjørvika, LocHal in Tilburg (The Netherlands) or Storyhouse in Chester (England)
  4. Public skateboarding and sport zones, like the Southbank Skatespace (England) or Urban Sport Zone in Amsterdam (The Netherlands). 
  5. Markets for sharing and socializing, like Brixton Village in London (England) or night markets in Asia.
  6. Private initiatives for better socialization like Bücherpiraten and Krefelder Freischwimmer.
  7. Non-governmental initiatives for better socialization like the French-German Cultural Institute Ramallah.
  8. Public swimming areas like the Flussbad in Berlin, Tainan Spring  or the public fountain on the Eberplatz in Cologne. 

    Photography: Marco Heyda