Free to low-cost spaces where Denverites can gather

“Third places” are considered vital to a healthy social life. So where are they in Denver?
6 min. read
Larimer Square. Oct. 20, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Dressed in house slippers and a grey oversized University of Denver hoodie I'd stack slices of pizza, buffalo wings and an occasional side salad inside of the Centennial Halls dining hall.

Among the clinks of silverware and glass plates, I'd eventually meet some of my closest friends (one of which recently gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, congrats Monique!) College students regularly convened with their peers in this space, talking about the perils of college courses and the trials of undergraduate shenanigans. Or the joys of our youth. This was our "third place."

When you're not spending time at home or at work, where are you? When it's Labor Day weekend and you don't have vacation plans, where in Denver do you go?

The "third place," a term coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book "The Great Good Place" refers to the public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. As cities across the country have felt the isolating impact of urban sprawl on the social lives of Americans, and as the pandemic sent us into our work-from-home caves, the need for these valuable gathering spaces is crucial to the well-being of Denver's cultural landscape.

Third places, according to Oldenburg, are central to democracy, community vitality and, "the centre of our search for a better way to live."

So what constitutes a third place?

Some examples include coffeehouses, libraries, hair salons, main streets, parks and gyms to name a few. However, there are some specific criteria for these spaces to be considered a true third place:

  • It's on neutral ground, meaning anyone can enter.
  • It's unstructured, meaning you can go as you please and stay as long as you like.
  • It's not expensive.
  • It's a place to talk.
  • It's near your home or work place.
  • It has regulars.
  • Chatter, joking and teasing are integral to the space.

One might argue that spots like 16th Street Mall or The Shops at Northfield complex make good third places. But the truth is they come with the pressure of something to be able to stick around. And as the cost of living goes up, including historically high gas prices this weekend, many locals must search for a viable gathering space that doesn't demand too much of their time and money.

If trying to find that truly social spot sounds like a good quest for this holiday, here's a list of viable, though not perfect, Denver third places to consider:

Denver Parks

Spending time outdoors (while we still can -- I'm looking at you, arctic front) is essential to the fabric of Denver and Colorado as a whole. Parks across the city present some of the best views, seats and sights across the city. Paco Sanchez Park just off West Colfax in the Villa Park neighborhood has one of the best playgrounds in the city, Rosedale's City of Kunming Park has one of the best sunset views and Washington Park is a gathering place for volleyball lovers.

If you haven't visited one of these grassy escapes, here is a list of parks worth checking out:

  • City Park
  • Washington Park
  • Cheesman Park
  • Commons Park
  • Confluence Park
  • Sloan's Lake Park
  • La Raza Park
  • RiNo Art Park
  • Ruby Hill Park
  • City of Kunming Park
  • Paco Sanchez Park
  • Robert H. McWilliams Park
  • Observatory Park

Click here for a full list of Denver's Urban Parks.

Denver Public Libraries

Although all Denver Public Library locations will be closed for Labor Day, throughout the year these free public spaces are great resources to convene with local community members. Some branches have even extended their hours, making them viable third place options throughout the week.

Click here for the full list of DPL branches closed for the Labor Day holiday.

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Denver Skatepark

The skate community deserves their flowers for preserving an urban third place through their love for kick flips. Checking off most of the boxes for what is considered a true third place, skaters of all backgrounds convene here to skate and build community without the pressure to spend money. The site has not come without its controversies, including the 2022 killing of 16-year old Juan Herrera-Lozano, community members have remained loyal to their shared space.

Levitt Pavilion

The nonprofit amphitheater hosts more than 50 all-ages free concerts in south Denver. Local residents frequently stop by for the open lawn-seating venue to see local, national and international acts throughout the year.

This Sunday, September 3 at 4 p.m. the venue will host "Bodies of Culture," a diverse group of musicians and professionals advocating for equity in Colorado's music industry.

Wynkoop Plaza at Union Station

Boasting over 30,000 square feet of public space outside of Denver's Union Station, the downtown plaza most recently hosted the 2023 Denver Municipal Inauguration. The outdoor water fountains are a great time for kids to run around and splash while parents or guardians can people-watch in one of downtown Denver's most lively areas. And with all the dining and shopping experiences inside of Union Station, there's still the allure of spending money.

McGregor Square

Owned by the poor-performing Colorado Rockies, the 659,000-square-development has shown promise as a third place contender. Tucked between two 13-story buildings and another 11-story, the outdoor plaza includes a hotel, restaurants, a food hall, offices and retail space. It's become the gathering place for many sporting events but it's slowly also developing into a year-round gathering spot.

Larimer Square

Once Denver's first commercial block, the Larimer stretch between 14th and 15th street has been heavily contested since it was purchased by North Carolina-based investment firm Asana Partners for $92.5 million in December 2020. It's most recently lost longtime residents like Ted's Montana Grill and Green Russell, but it continues to fight for third place relevancy by hosting many free festivals throughout the year. With its Christmas-esque decor and picnic tables sprawled across the street, it's a contender for third place recognition. But only slightly.

And if you have any more third places of your own, send them my way!

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