Ron Sher doesn’t fit the ruthless developer stereotype. As a member of PPS’s Board of Directors, Sher was instrumental in organizing February’s Placemaking conference in Seattle. And as CEO of the Third Place Company he has devoted himself to creating retail places that foster community and change neighborhoods. How? By converting declining malls into thriving mixed-use centers with local businesses, community institutions, and common spaces that offer free activities and events.

Giant chessboards are a popular staple of Sher's developments.

Don’t get the wrong idea — Sher’s Third Place developments still turn a profit. But their success is measured by indicators other than money. Take Third Place Books and Commons in Lake Forest Park, Washington. Here, sales volume takes a backseat to less tangible things, like the liveliness of the conversation at book discussions.

Without these conversations, it’s hard to have a true democracy.

As you may have noticed from the names of his developments (there is another Third Place Books in Ravenna, Washington), Sher is passionate about “third places,” the phrase Ray Oldenburg coined to describe social gathering spaces outside the home and the workplace. The Seattle Times’ Sherry Stripling recently spoke to Sher about his belief in the ability of third places to create a more open society and foster conversation between people who hold opposing views. We are pleased to reprint an excerpt of her story below.

…Without these conversations, it’s hard to have a true democracy, says Ron Sher, who has been lauded by customers and by Oldenburg for creating common space in his developments – Crossroads in Bellevue, Third Place Books and Commons at Lake Forest Park, and Third Place Books in Ravenna. All three invite people to linger for chess, music and book discussions.

The concept is called “place making” and Sher is on the national board of the Project for Public Spaces, which will bring a group together in Seattle next year to plan a larger, public conference here for 2006 or 2007.

Environmentalists are among those interested, Sher says, because they believe one of the best ways to prevent sprawl is to make cities friendlier places to live.

And why is it important for democracy?

Just look at the polarization of Republicans and Democrats on a whole range of social issues, says [Mara] Adelman, an associate professor in Seattle University’s Department of Communication.

She’s studied the benefits of “weak ties” – the people you meet regularly at the dog park, the coffee shop, the bus stop.

The “strong ties” in our lives – family, friends, workmates – tend to be “birds of a feather,” Adelman says. They have certain expectations of how we’ll think or behave. The “weak ties” provide freedom of self-expression to test out new ideas – “and then you get to say good night and go home.”

Without third places, she says, “you can’t get into the gray areas and complexity.”

Read the full story: Conversation starters: “Third places” provide havens for diverse discussion.

Excerpts from Ron Sher’s Welcoming Remarks

Why Placemaking matters:

Why Placemaking is so important to me is impossible to separate out from my world view. We all have a perspective, a rationale, a reason for the work we are doing, beyond just doing good things, supporting ourselves and spending time with good people (not that this might not be enough reason). Until I was working on this conference my greater context wasn’t something I talked about much. I just knew intuitively that Placemaking was important.

When redeveloping the Crossroads Shopping Center in Bellevue I realized how much I enjoyed making places that supported the citizens and where people not only enjoyed being, but maybe even made a positive impact on their behavior as citizens. Then I learned of Ray Oldenburg and his Third Place theory. This became a metaphor for me in much of my work. Placemaking fits into a chain of things and taken to the extreme is a panacea for everything that is going wrong in the world and in our society.

Placemaking and democracy:

I am not talking of the “state-centered” democracy that we most often think of, but rather the society-centered democracy. Placemaking creates livable cities with safe, civil Third Places where democracy happens, can be learned, and modeled.

On the Placemaking Movement:

The question is how we are going to have a sustainable world where the quality of people’s lives is improved and where people have greater joy, greater meaning, and are more considerate of one another. The first to address the issue of how we could adapt from a need for continued growth was John Stewart Mill. He realized that added productivity and efficiency could be used to improve people’s lives. They could focus on the “art of living” when they were less focused with “getting on.” In modern terms he might see more public goods and free time as the answer to a long-term sustainable future. This would certainly be consistent with great cities, populated by many great places.

So a Placemaking movement can increase awareness and educate people not only to the value of places and how to create them, but how to activate them, how to behave in them. With my bookstores I have seen many, many people who intuitively understand place have a big AHA and go out of their way to support it. We can capture this enthusiasm for our Placemaking Movement.

When Third Places Come First was last modified: March 8th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces