Coffee Shops as Urban Social Hubs

Introducing new coffee shops that follow a more independent style could encourage the common type of lingering mindset that is attached to the third place, which often builds strong communities and neighbourhoods.

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The urban coffee shop is the unsung hero and catalyst of pedestrian activity and increased social activity in the city. We often take these spaces for granted, utilizing them on a daily basis to meet up with friends or grab a quick drink on the way to work, but the coffee shop plays a much more important role in the larger planning scheme of the city. The establisment of a coffee culture helps in the creation of vibrant streetscapes and produces a large percentage of the pedestrian activity that is found in these areas. In attempting to unpack this concept, it is useful to compare urban coffee shops with suburban ones.

Dark Horse Coffee, Toronto - Photo by Ryan Tir

Dark Horse Coffee in Toronto – Photo by Ryan Tir

In the suburbs, coffee shops usually take the form of the quick-fix corporate model, often equipped with drive-thrus and limited comfortable seating available. This is in contrast with independently owned shops that naturally encourage lingering and have their own unique kinds of personalities and subtleties that just can’t be properly recreated with generic retail models. These suburban coffee houses are unable to produce the coffee culture found in inner city neighbourhoods, which often seems to occur quite organically over time.

A Starbucks drive-thru in Vaughan, ON – Photo by Amanda Napoli

A Starbucks drive-thru in Vaughan – Photo by Amanda Napoli

If the average suburban coffee house is able to produce this unique indie cafe culture, would it be enough, then, to induce the desirable vibrant streetscapes and pedestrian activity that suburbia often lacks?

Though the connection may seem somewhat of a stretch, it is not as idealistic as one might think. As much as density is the unspoken major factor in initiating walkable neighbourhoods, social activity engaged at street level works in a very similar fashion, even in the case of more sprawling landscapes. Introducing new coffee shops that follow a more independent style could encourage the common type of lingering mindset that is attached to the third place, which often builds strong communities and neighbourhoods.

These places provide a reason for suburbanities to simply leave the house, while possibly avoiding excessive car usage. In a simplistic sense, attitudes can change to, “let’s walk to the cafe and talk about X for a while,” from “let’s grab something from the drive thru and discuss this back home.” These are the changes that eventually produce cultural and social development, encourage pedestrian activity and encourage more dense areas to emerge over longer periods of time.

Thanks goes out to Cameron Balfour for inspiring this piece.

Check out Ray Oldenburg’s highly influential The Great Good Place for further discussion of the third place and community building tactics.