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What Recent Spending Cuts Reveal About The UK’s Third Places

Local authorities in the UK have been experiencing cuts to funding, and increasingly depleting budgets for several years now. Birmingham recently joined the growing list of councils that have declared effective bankruptcy, making it the sixth council to do so in the last five years. With a reported 26 more councils still at risk, cuts to services have been inevitable. Yet these cuts are more often than not targeted towards our third places, which are becoming increasingly obsolete.

Third places are where we exist outside of work and home. They are often sites of relaxation, socialisation and spontaneous conversation that do not hold you to spending ceaseless amounts of money. The term was first coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg who in his 1999 book The Great Good Place argued that, “what suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly and pleasurably” without “getting into an automobile.”

Since 2010 spending on services like libraries has fallen by almost half in the UK. A similar phenomenon has been seen with pubs and bars, with figures showing that nearly 400 pubs, or two a day, had closed in the first six months of 2023, almost matching the entire year of 2022. With energy costs increasing and a scheduled rise to business rates, these closures are set to continue. As a result of these closures and cuts, local and easily accessible third places like libraries and pubs are becoming harder to come by.

Walkable communities are also often discussed in the same breath as third places, as they demonstrate the desire for space built around human engagement for people rather than transportation or corporations. Both the expense and time it takes to gather outside of work often reduces our social interactions. Balancing work, family life, fitness, socialising, hobbies, and aspects of one’s identity like religion, is becoming an increasingly tall order. More than half the UK population say they do not exercise, and UK church memberships have declined from 10.6 million in 1930 to 5.5 million in 2010. If current trends continue, membership will fall to 8.4% of the population by 2025. Of course, these statistics can be explained by a number of changing societal factors, but it certainly prompts us to question just how much of an effect space has on community.

Theorist Marc Auge sees this as the effect of ‘supermodernity’, where the spaces built now are capital centric. Rather than being built for people to occupy, he argues that the spaces that surround us such as airports and motorways are built simply to facilitate capital. Essentially much of the space that surrounds us is made solely for us to pass through, where we become no more than a “passenger, customer or driver.” Auge calls this “the non-place” that “does not contain any organic society”, and which “creates neither singular identity nor relations: only solitude and similitude.”

Yet, the desire for third spaces or walkable communities that reject this notion of ‘supermodernity’ have also been heavily contested in the UK. The rise of low traffic zones and neighbourhoods, as well as increased interest in 15-minute cities has sparked protests and online outrage for fears of increased government control over our freedom of movement. In the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns and government restrictions, many anti-vaxxers and conspiracy influencers have rebelled against low traffic neighbourhood plans, seeing them as an extension of those lockdowns.

So, amidst the controversy and cutbacks, is there really any innate desire for third places anymore? Our progression into the digital age confuses this question. There is clearly a desire for third places, so much so that people are crafting them into the digital space, creating online gaming communities to escape into. In 2023, there were approximately 51.21 million video gamers in the United Kingdom. The rise of digital third places may explain their increased eradication within the physical space. Yet the digital third place is almost an entirely different entity to the physical space we as humans occupy and socialise within.

Approximately 3 million people in England alone said they feel lonely often or always. The need for in person socialising and community is clearly very prevalent in the case of mental health. In a similar way, our physical environment is also negatively impacted with the erasure of third places. In the UK the transport sector is responsible for emitting more greenhouse gasses than any other sector, and globally, transport accounts for around a quarter of CO2 emissions. The need to drive great distances could perhaps be curbed by Oldenburg’s conceptions of space, but with heavy controversy and economic pressure, such ideas are a far cry from ever actually being implemented.

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