Christina Contreras, principal and founder of Living Ecology Studio in Denver, has been selected as the ULI/Martin Bucksbaum Senior Visiting Fellow. During her one-year fellowship, Contreras will explore how privately owned and managed “third places” can better contribute to individual and community health and well-being. Learn More  

ULI/Martin Bucksbaum Senior Visiting Fellow Christina Contreras

I’m so happy to be sitting at one of my favorite “third places” as I draft my thoughts about this research project exploring health and third places. The bike ride here reminded me why I love Denver, and the endorphins pumping through my body are making me feel inspired and invigorated, even without my morning cup of coffee. And that’s precisely why I’m here, for an impeccable serving of espresso in hot milk topped with delectable foam. But as I write this, I realize that isn’t really why I’m here. I’m actually here for the people watching, the outdoor seating (I like the variety of sun/shade options and different microenvironments), and mostly to chat with the authentic, nonjudgmental staff and visitors. What I’m not here for is Wi-Fi; the coffee shop has been in business 20-plus years without it, a point of pride for them. 

I’m sitting at a wooden picnic table on the east side of the building in the late morning sun while I wait for my cappuccino and breakfast burrito to be prepared. Now that I sit here for a minute, I realize it’s warmer than I thought and I’m glad for the cobalt blue shade umbrella in the center of the table I can put up myself.  

This is the first time I’ve been here during the COVID-19 pandemic and the setup has been adapted: order at the building entrance and pickup at the exit door, never entering the building. It seems to be working well, at least for the purpose of selling goods and staying in business. All the tables and chairs inside are stacked and pushed to the front wall along the windows. The wood floor, usually bustling with people sitting and chatting and coming and going, looks like an empty dance floor. I wonder how the community table is doing without people gathered around it. Well, really, I wonder how are the people who are usually gathered around the community table doing?  

Okay, I got my regular order—medium cappuccino and green chile burrito. I can’t pull up a stool to the coffee bar or sit on the couch and check out the sketches in the community sketchbook, but the genuine, “Thank you, friend,” I got with my cappuccino goes a long way. It was so simple but the intentionality and look straight in the eyes made me feel appreciated and welcome. 

Aside from the to-go cup, it’s as good as I remember it. I didn’t recognize the masked barista, at least not with the quick look I got through the window from the outside, but the delicate “rosetta” pattern in the foam reminds me of the time my favorite barista (an intriguing conversationalist even though a man of few words) insisted on making me a second cortado because the first cortado, seemingly great to me, wasn’t his best work. I mean, talk about taking pride in your craft! 

I overhear some conversations of the people waiting in line at the front door-turned-order-window. I can’t help but notice they are standing about the same width apart as the diameter of the big community table.

The type of scene I reflected upon is common to many—we spend some portion of our lives in “third places” with other people. As the ULI/Martin Bucksbaum Senior Visiting Fellow, I will explore how privately owned and managed “third places” contribute to human health and well-being for individuals and communities. It is with excitement that I embark upon this research project to understand, recognize, and support innovation at the intersections of health and privately owned and managed third places to reduce health inequities and achieve improved health outcomes. I am devoted to the study of landscapes and urban places because I care deeply about communities and the planet, and I recognize the tremendous power that the built environment has on our lives and ecosystems.

So, what is a “third place”? Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term in 2001, and one definition he offers is “a setting beyond home and work (the “first” and “second” places, respectively) in which people relax in good company and do so on a regular basis.” Oldenburg’s books, Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories about the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities and The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, provide in-depth descriptions of third-place characteristics and explore third places’ potential for building collective, community strength and their ability to address individual and societal problems. He describes third places as “homes away from home, where unrelated people relate.” This research project will focus exclusively on third places that are privately owned and managed.

My approach will be focused on solutions and seeks to create foundational frameworks to implement effective strategies. We need numerous solutions, and we need solutions for today, five years from now, 10 years from now, and 50-plus years from now. Americans have worse health and shorter life spans than people in other wealthy nations, despite the highest spending in the world per person on medical care. The United States ranks at the bottom or near the bottom among comparable countries on the majority of 150 health measures, including infant mortality and life expectancy.[ii] A growing body of research is increasing our understanding of the physical and social factors outside of medical care that shape health, and public health and built environment research is increasingly focusing on the social determinants of health. The World Health Organization defines the social determinants of health as “the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.”[iii] There is a wide range of social determinants, and evidence has accumulated pointing to socioeconomic factors such as income, wealth, and education as the fundamental causes of a wide range of health outcomes. As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation emphasizes, our ZIP code can tell more about our health than our genetic code.

The research project asks the question: “How do we prioritize and achieve positive health outcomes for individuals and communities through planning, design, financing, policies, programming, and decision-making in privately owned and managed third places?” The yearlong project will be based on peer-reviewed research—which provides an evidence-based foundational grounding—and will rely upon established public health data and metrics. The framework will build upon research that I completed with colleagues at the University of Colorado at Denver College of Architecture and Planning through a project titled “Creating Healthy Places through Transformation Education and Design.” Health indicators (measurable data points such as life expectancy, depression and anxiety rates, and obesity rates) will be the primary reference points for understanding health outcomes (implementable goals supported by research such as reducing depression and anxiety rates by supporting safe and inclusive social interactions).

ULI members are doing innovative work related to these topics. Working with ULI staff, I will be asking interested ULI members to submit third-place projects for study to further inform and enhance the research project. To contextualize the research and data, stories will be intertwined, including the lived experiences and personal reflections of visitors and community members in third places. We will recognize the professional roles or connections that ULI members have to the third place. A flexible, participatory, self-directed approach will be used to gather stories, welcoming all mediums of storytelling including, but not limited to, photos, videos, conversations, interviews, emails, and various forms of artistic expression.

If you would like to receive more information about submitting a project for case report consideration, send us an email at health@uli.org. I look forward to collaborating with you to provide accessible information and resources to help you build healthy communities.