I spent four years living in Barcelona, a city replete with third places. The outdoor cafe is the most common, and is made possible by large public plazas, typically ringed by small, locally owned establishments. Here’s an example, called Plaza Vila de Gracia:
These plazas are open only to pedestrians and can be found in every neighborhood in the city. Each has its own personality and charm, providing a shared outdoor space for the community living in the area. They’re convenient places to meet before heading off to another location, or to simply sit and people watch with a group of friends.
I suppose I began to take them for granted when I lived there, but since moving back to New York I’ve realized that cities without this “plaza culture” are quite different. In New York, outdoor cafes are almost always found running along the sidewalk, which can crowd both pedestrians and diners. This also normally limits the tables to one single row rather than the grid-like layouts seen in Barcelona, which generally have a more convivial, expansive atmosphere. Psychologically, placing these third places along a busy sidewalk makes them feel less restful and more harried. I believe this detracts from the power of the shared outdoor third space. With more pedestrian plazas, New York could establish its own plaza culture, increasing community engagement and happy encounters throughout the city.