’How do we build community?’ Western prof studies sites of social connection

Western  Debbie Laliberte Rudman studies ’third places,’ environment
Western Debbie Laliberte Rudman studies ’third places,’ environments outside of home and work, and what they mean to those with unstable employment. (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications photo)
You’re out of work - retired, unemployed or between gigs - and need to get out of your home. Where do you go for connection?

Western health sciences professor Debbie Laliberte Rudman is finding out.

She studies the concept of "third places," environments outside of home and work - the first and second places - where people go to do things together and  connect socially with others. Those spaces can include everything from coffee shops to board game clubs to recreation centres. But Rudman’s research focuses specifically on those who don’t have a stable workplace.

"We all need to feel connected to other people; that’s essential for health and well-being, both at an individual and a community level. I’m really interested in social cohesion - how do we build community where people feel they belong, and how does that create this larger sense of social cohesion rather than division?" Rudman said.

Her body of research has focused on people at risk of social isolation and exclusion. So, it made sense to narrow the third places study to look specifically at retirees and those who are long-term or cyclically unemployed.

"Gig workers or contract workers or people who are seasonal workers, their lives are much more unpredictable and uncertain than a person who has a full-time, stable job. We’re really interested in how third places exist in their lives and what functions they serve." - Western professor Debbie Laliberte Rudman

"I n the absence of a workplace there may be other things you need, that you gain, from engaging in a third place," Rudman added.

Her four-year research project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council , includes a partnership with professor Rebecca Aldrich from the University of Southern California. Together, Rudman and Aldrich will study participants in London, Ont. and Pasadena, Cali.

"We want to see if a different policy context matters for how third places look and how they’re experienced," Rudman said.

There are more of those third places around than you’d think.

The neighbourhood diner. Your nearest public library branch. A curling club or dance studio. 

From community gardens to cafes, third places depend on a person’s interests, background and socio-economic status. Those who are precariously employed may go to a third place to gain more than just connection, such as networking to help their careers or even to exchange food or other essential resources, Rudman said. 

"We hear about third places that are low-cost or maybe even free, like libraries or a food court in the mall where you can sit and maybe not even have to buy something," Rudman said.

Others may have the time and financial resources to frequently visit coffee shops or recreation classes where payment is required.

Though there is some existing research on how older adults use third places, little has been done on those with unstable or uncertain work lives. Studies are mostly limited to migrant workers, Rudman said.

But precarious workers illustrate an important principle of third places: It’s more about the people - and what they do together - than the place.

"There’s this theme: P eople will create their own third places if they’re excluded from ’mainstream’ third places. So seasonal workers created sports leagues or would just find an area in a park or a community square where they would meet every week, and make it a third place," Rudman said.

Building connected communities

Her study opens important questions about how to build strong communities and provide the tools for third places to crop up. Again, it’s not so much about carving out physical space as it is laying the foundation for third places to develop organically.

That may mean ensuring resources are available for people who need money or other support to facilitate those spaces of connection.

"Seniors or people precariously employed are at higher risk of social isolation because of intersecting forms of discrimination like ageism or classism, as well as uncertain financial resources - and for precarious workers, uncertain schedules," Rudman said.

"People will create their own third places, but we have to ensure we’re not setting up barriers to that happening."

The research is important because of the crucial role social connection plays in overall health and well-being, Rudman added.

"Thinking about how we create and support places in our community that foster that sense of belonging, foster that sense of being connected - knowing there are other people who care about you, care about whether you show up, who value what you bring to your relationships - it is essential.-


Rudman is looking for precariously employed or unemployed Londoners who are interested in being part of her study. Potential participants can reach out to placestudy@uwo.ca.