What’s a Third Place and Why Pianos?

This week I heard a great CBC interview about the concept of ‘Third Places’. It twigged a memory so I went digging and found a newspaper column I had written in July 2009. Maybe a concept a little ahead of its time but today, some 13 years later, it seems even more relevant. You might be interested in knowing some of the pianos still exist and the street piano movement spread to communities around the world.
A couple of weeks ago, 30 somewhat funky looking pianos were placed in public spaces around the city of London, England with “Play Me, I’m Yours” printed on their sides.

Despite their reputation for a being a tad starchy, Londoners responded enthusiastically as professionals and amateurs alike stepped up to the piano while others gathered to sing along.

The talent seemed to be as diverse as the people who play. One pianist dressed as Chopin and a musical comedy duo played on 24 of the pianos within an eight hour period.

The innovative, interactive art project was designed by artist Luke Jerram and sponsored by a non-profit arts group called Sing London to “get people talking to one another and to claim ownership and activate the public space”. He sees it as a blank canvas for everyone.

Old, unwanted pianos were collected, painted and then secured to the ground with metal cables. A piano tuner travels among them to ensure they all stay in tune and, in the event of rain, they each have plastic covers. The initiative seems to have brought out the best in people as they politely relinquish their places at the piano to allow others to perform. Additionally not a single piano has been vandalized.

The piano project highlights the importance of what urban sociologist, Ray Oldenburg, refers to as third places (in contrast to the first and second places of home and work), as neutral public places where people can gather and interact. He argues that parks, bars, coffee shops, recreation centres, general stores, and other third places are essential to civic engagement and community vitality.

Third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. Third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”  Additionally, social equality is promoted because the playing field is level as everyone is there as a guest. This also not only pulls us away from our computers and TVs, it provides a setting for grassroots politics, citizen involvement, and opportunities to express care and support for one another.

As those gathered around the piano in London will attest, third places reflect a more playful, light-hearted mood than is typically found in our homes and work settings. For those whose lives are caught up in the daily grind of home to work and back again, the sense of community gained from these third places is even more important.

While we’re still likely to find these third places in smaller towns, they don’t seem to be as common in larger communities. Oldenburg, however, suggests we can and need to transform public spaces into vibrant community places, whether they’re parks, plazas, public squares, streets, sidewalks or the myriad other outdoor and indoor spaces that have public uses in common.

He suggests the starting point for developing a concept for any public space is to accept that the community is the expert and to work from the beginning to honour and utilize local talents and assets. Tapping the local expertise at the beginning of the process will also help create a sense of ownership in developing a third place that provides the sense of welcome and comfort that is essential.

The redesigning or building of third places isn’t always easy but ultimately these places are a key strategy if we are to help find the sense of community and belonging that so many have lost.

Posted on 12-15-22

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