The overlooked value of half-empty places

By Peter Elmlund.

There is something special about half-empty bars, restaurants, and cafés that never have a full house. Here you can hang out for a long time because you do not occupy space and block an income opportunity for the owner. Instead of being a "stone in the shoe," you are an asset, because your presence makes the place more attractive.

The requirements for such a place are quite intricate. Typically it doesn't have a location where people just pour in, and it is not a destination that attracts people from far away. It is not expensive, and therefore the quality of the service is perhaps not the best..

The unique selling point for many of these establishments is not related to the service at all. It is about place qualities.

Is it cynical to celebrate them? Shouldn't we wish them all more success? Certainly not. If these locations had the full potential to grow, bigger businesses could take over, and wipe out life opportunities for a lot of ordinary people. That was what happened when modernist town planning came into fashion, with its separation and concentration of functions. It provided the platform for large scale retail.

The limited growth potential creates the market for many micro-entrepreneurs, and many of them don't want to grow because their business is a lifestyle, or they are not willing to take the risk. That perhaps surprising result was found by Erik Hurst and Benjamin Pugsley of the University of Chicago, who noted that many seek "non pecuniary benefits (being one’s own boss, having flexibility of hours, etc.)". This is the reason why politicians tend to neglect these businesses, overlooking the social values they provide.

Many half-empty establishments also function as "third places," a term coined by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg and referring to regular meeting places outside home and work. What I like about them is that they are "behavior-rich." It is my term, and I am not sure the wording is perfect, but it will do for the moment. If you go to a fine dining restaurant, you are supposed to behave somewhat strictly. At a half-empty place, you can choose between a range of behaviors — everything from writing on your novel, playing chess, or gathering with friends — and you can dress in many different ways. This type of setting is open. It has some features that make people come, but it is not manual-driven, specialized, bureaucratized, managed, or governed by strong social rules.

"Behavior-rich" is not the same thing as social diversity. All kinds of people go to McDonald's, but they behave more or less in the same way, while a pub in a segregated middle class neighborhood can be open to many different behaviors. The concept embraces places that are open for many things to happen organically.

We can apply this thinking also to public places in the city.

Jane Jacobs' remark that a place needs people that are there for many different reasons points in this direction; a multitude of behaviors and appearances are liberating and attractive. Union Square in New York is a good example. Here you can see a financial guy in a suit share a bench with a person from the other side of the economic spectrum. But it is not social diversity per se that creates the situation; it is a result of the behavior rich setting that lures all kinds of people. What is the secret of Union Square, then? It is populated by locals, by visitors from nearby neighborhoods, by people who work in the surroundings, and by tourists. It has a good balance.

Importantly, there are also many types of places within the square, like the calm green walkway in the middle, the "stage" where street performers choose to perform, the "gallery" where people sit who like to watch, and so on. But these places are not fixed; they are open for definition and use.

We can compare this kind of place with Times Square, which is a place for tourists. There are a lot of things you can do here, but many that you won't do because it is not comfortable. Times Square is too popular and, therefore, commercialized and specialized, and that limits human behavior.

“Behavior rich” places are challenging to plan, design, manage, and commercialize. What planners can do is to make sure that there are enough space for independents, and to promote design that has a potential for many uses. They should avoid design that predefines everything, and most important of all, they should create a fine-grain mix of elements.