Cover story

The rise of the ‘fourth place’

by Elizabeth Weiss

Millennials are in search of something more than a big home or urban nightlife. At the heart of the millennial’s desired lifestyle in 2018 is a sense of community, productivity and inspiration.

10 Min Read Time

On any given week-night, a millennial living in Gaithersburg, Maryland, might walk from her Downtown Crown flat towards Coastal Flats for a drink or a meal with friends. She may linger at the restaurant’s outdoor seating to people watch, take a late class at the fitness centre around the corner, or grab her laptop and head to a cafe for the inspiring aroma of a cappuccino and the energy of people discussing their next big idea.

Gaithersburg is close to the amenities of Washington, D.C. — a bus takes residents to the closest Metro station — yet the smaller city has an artistic flavour unto itself. Between home, the lake and the walking-friendly Rio shopping centre, residents find green space, farmers markets and the opportunity to revel in the walkable area where they go for both work and play.

It’s in communities like Gaithersburg where young professionals are opting for the connectivity of an urban area without the overwhelming buzz of a major city population or sky-rocketing rents. And it’s here where we see a growing investment in spaces where 18-to-34 year-olds can experience work, leisure and community in tandem.

The creative class sweet spot

Richard Florida has made it his career to better understand these changing communities and spaces. He is co-founder and editor-at-large of CityLab, a publication dedicated to exploring the future of cities, as well as director of cities at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute and a Distinguished Fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate, making him a bona fide expert on millennials and the kinds of communities they seek.

Through his extensive research and writing, Florida has given this group of boundary-bending professionals a new name: ‘the creative class.’ Easily misunderstood as a socio-economic class that only includes stereotypical creatives — artists, actors, dancers, writers, musicians — the creative class, as coined by Florida, instead encompasses people in all fields.

The common denominator of the creative class is that they are wholly engaged in the creative process, whatever their career field. In the eyes of the creative class, it is their job and desire to be innovative problem-finders and problem-solvers. In Florida’s ground-breaking studies, he has found that this creative class is also a driving force for economic growth.

The key may rest in the hot spots captivating the creative class, a term Rana Florida, author of “Upgrade” (and Richard’s wife), describes as the “fourth place”. If the first place is the home, the second place is work and the third place is the after-hours kickback of a pub or happy hour spot, the fourth place is a spot where people can combine work and leisure in the midst of others trying to tap into this same creative fervour.

These formal and informal gathering spots are intended to serve people from all demographics and generations conducting all manners of business. Professionals come together in a common place where they can draw from each other, or simply from the pleasure of being in a shared environment.

In turn, these places create the community many millennials crave (as long as they have WiFi, complimentary caffeine and beer, comfy seating and aesthetically inspiring surroundings) because even in a world that is digitally driven and technologically focused, fourth spaces reveal that many people are thirsty for deeper connections.

Even in a world that is digitally driven and technologically focused, fourth spaces reveal that many people are thirsty for deeper connections.

“Humans weren’t meant to be in social isolation,” explains Rana Florida, who is also the CEO of the Creative Class Group, the global advisory services firm that uses her husband’s research to inform companies and communities about economic competitiveness, demographic trends and cultural innovation.

“The coffee shop became all the rage as a place where neighbours and strangers alike could gather and linger, dialogue, work, be around other people or just sit and people watch,” she says.

People are even willing to pay the fee required to secure a spot in the innovative and inspiring communities they crave, like those in WeWork workspaces spattered across the country.

According to Rana, millennial demands will lead to more communal spaces, where wine bars, dog bars, coffee bars, co-work spaces and outdoor playgrounds morph into spaces that allow people to convene around multiple purposes and experiences. In 2018, any business can turn itself into a fourth place and, from where Rana sits, they need to in order to survive.

“The traditional retail outlet needs an experiential element, whether that’s Williams Sonoma offering cooking classes or Restoration Hardware presenting programmes on design and décor,” she says. “Any business can turn into a place where people want to gather.”

Or, for that matter, a place where millennials want to work, innovate and create. With the fourth place in mind, one question becomes apparent: Are developers doing enough to fulfil the demands of millennials when it comes to how this generation wants to live, work and play?

What developers are doing right

Naturally, there are communities with abundant professional and cultural offerings that draw millennials, like New York, Boston, Miami and Washington, D.C,” Richard Florida explains. But lately, millennials have begun to locate around smaller cities like Richmond, Memphis and Gaithersburg.

“Small to mid-sized cities have been able to attract younger talent thanks to their large supply of affordable housing, distinct quality of place and presence of local, millennial-focused organisations,” he says. In Richmond, Virginia, for instance, an organisation called Helping Young Professionals Engage (HYPE) has been successful at connecting millennial residents to the local business community.

As part of his work, Florida identifies cities that are major contenders for developing into successful millennial communities, like Philadelphia and Jersey City. “The flow of venture capital and start-ups to Jersey City, along with its affordable housing supply, has attracted a host of young professionals looking for a more affordable alternative to Manhattan,” he explains. Of course, successful millennial communities exist, but there is one big reason more of them do not: Developers may be focusing on the wrong amenities.

“While young people still value space, they are far more interested in locating near their offices and having access to both public transport and urban amenities such as parks, restaurants, museums and more,” Richard Florida says. Places, in essence, that are abundant with fourth spaces.

“These characteristics go hand-in-hand with urban communities, which are denser and feature more walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods.”

According to Florida, if developers truly want to court a millennial crowd to their mixed-use areas, they should highlight the diversity and technological offerings of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

“At the end of the day, young professionals gravitate towards areas that prioritise innovation and entrepreneurship and provide a diverse, welcoming environment for new residents,” he says. “These multi-use projects have become increasingly successful not only at enticing millennials, but at branding a city as a premier destination for millennial talent.”

Yet, rather than grouping millennials into their own enclaves, Florida says that developers would be wise to foster interactions between millennials and older generations. Cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York have been able to avoid millennial enclaves by offering inter-generational housing, where university students can enjoy reduced or zero rent while living with seniors in exchange for service time.

What these types of alternative living arrangements prove, Richard Florida says, is that developers need to design and build inclusive spaces where people of all ages can convene and connect.

“Spaces like Union Market in Washington, D.C., for instance, offer multi-purpose venues and host a wide array of events, forums and activities that encourage these types of interactions.”

Perhaps this millennial embrace of new ways of living is in fact a return to something inherently human:

Millennials, too, are craving a reprieve from the demands of technology and looking for environments that hold far more depth.

Home sweet home

Cities change and grow from year to year, decade to decade, generation to generation. Some developers may resist changing their formulas to satisfy the whims of millennials, yet most developers recognise that attracting and retaining millennials to their designs is the key to economic growth, according to Richard Florida.

“Whether they have reservations or not, developers cannot afford to ignore millennial demands,” he says.

No matter if they focus on current or future community spaces, the key ingredient is remembering that public spaces provide people with an opportunity to be together, connect, reflect and better understand each other.

For Florida, the bottom line in developing around these types of community demands is clear.

“Community spaces are places where a diverse mix of people across socio-economic, racial, ethnic and age categories can come together,” he says. “They can be universal connectors, helping remove barriers of isolation, and build a greater sense of community with each other. Building more community public spaces is critical for building greater inclusive prosperity in our communities.