Friends of Third Place Commons: A Study in Self-organizing

By Anne Stadler

Sept. 16, 2008

Friends of Third Place Commons is a classic example of self-organizing. In 2000, I was having coffee one day at the Honey Bear Bakery, one of five small cafes adjacent to a large commons area, part of Third Place Books in the mall near my house. I overheard a fellow talking with our City Manager about the fact it might not be sustainable to keep funding such a large area as the Commons, even though a similar space was working at Crossroads, a much larger mall he owned east of the Lake. It turned out this fellow was Ron Sher, the owner of the bookstore. I introduced myself, and next thing we knew we were having a conversation about how to get the community involved in Third Place Commons. I pulled together a small group of community stakeholders, and Friends of Third Place Commons was born.

The Commons space supports self-organizing. It is an open civic space. People meet there in impromptu and planned gatherings. It welcomes old and young alike. Friends of Third Place Commons is a circle of individuals from government, businesses, non-profit groups, and citizens that support and use the space. Civil relationships are the key to the community that has formed around Friends’ association with the Commons.

Picture a sizeable common space, under an atrium which lets in natural light. It is ringed with five cafes, and next to a bookstore. People talk and eat around a motley assortment of tables: long wooden library tables, round tables, square tables. Some work at laptop computers. Two middle schoolers play chess on a floor chess board with large chess pieces. A four year old pushes his train around a small track on the table while waiting for Mom to bring food. Seniors play Mah Jong at several tables. A book club is discussing their latest book at another. Up at the stage, sound is being adjusted for a flute player, a guitarist, and a drummer who will be playing sometime during the next half hour. That’s pretty typical of Third Place Commons.

My family and I can walk to Third Place Commons for a staggering variety of offerings from community and near-by groups. Every Friday night at “Magic: The Gathering” a group of high school age people take over the Friends Room at the back of the Commons. Music and performing arts include offerings from Lake Forest Park Elementary School students, a community band, Northwest Ballet School, Shoreline Community College Jazz Ensemble, and many more. We’ve seen community partners collaborate in offerings as diverse as a Gardening Fair, a Care Conversation on Intercultural Communication; grandparent support and education; Parent/Caregiver?/Child? playgroups; Teen Book Club: Pizza and books; Healthcare Fairs, Transportation Fairs, LFP History Project!

Last year more than formal 700 events happened at the Commons! And who knows how many self-organized activities sprang up from that space?!

From May through mid-October, we buy fresh local food at the Friends sponsored Sunday Farmers Market. AND, day and night, I meet people at Third Place for coffee, bump into them for conversation and news, listen to an author read from a new book, or sit with my hot mocha and read a weekly newspaper!

For many years I felt my town was a suburb, with real “life” happening in Seattle. Two factors have changed my experience of Lake Forest Park. One is the existence of Third Place Commons right in the heart of our local economic and political life. The other is the spirit of “Yes!” coming from Friends of Third Place Commons. That “Yes!” is the heart of community. It invites the gift exchange that is the root meaning of the word “community”! From being a property owner in an accidental suburb of Seattle, I am now a member of the community of Lake Forest Park, Washington!