The Third Space (R)evolution

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Mar 12, 2021

Dr Robin Barraclough has got in touch from New Zealand to describe the benefits that might emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic...

Overheard conversations are funny things, especially when the context of the conversation is often absent. Documenting the small talk of a place is one of the oldest and funniest blogs on the internet; Overheard in New York.  One classic example goes like this: 

New Yorker, Where are you from?

Tourist, Korea.  

New Yorker, Oh really, North or South?  

Tourist, Take a wild guess.

It was an overheard conversation about third space in the pandemic world that we now live in that got me thinking. The first space being, home’ and the second space being, work, whilst the third space was seen as a place to gather, mingle and socialise that wasn't either home or work. Obvious examples might include shopping malls, cafes or bars, a hairdressers, a library or even a sports club. However, in societies that remain under the influence of Covid-19 for the foreseeable future the changes to the way we live and work are profound, and that includes the importance of third spaces in our lives.

After a lockdown and the effective closing of our international borders, Kiwis like people everywhere have experienced a shrinking of the world around them in both a physical and metaphorical sense.  With that change large numbers of us now have a renewed appreciation of our outdoor spaces. If evidence were needed of this change, huge numbers of Kiwis have been holidaying at home, so it was no surprise when a colleague informed me recently that Queenstown Emergency Department had its busiest day on record, EVER, thanks to the school holidays.  Elsewhere sales of bicycles, outdoor equipment and caravans are all at record levels.  Even the demand for our furry four legged friends, newly christened, "Covid Companions" is at an all time high all around the globe.

A perfect day in the outdoors (Part 1) - A run up Mt Rolleston's Rome Ridge

The outdoor community has always known about these ‘sweets spots’ where people meet and greet. Examples that come to mind include, The Unwin Lodge at Mt Cook, Bryces Shop and Campsite at Wharepapa and Hangdog Camp at Paynes Ford. (My personal favourite hangout is the Sheffield Pie Shop - just dont tell everyone!)

Right on cue with the interest in third spaces, climbing and bouldering walls are set to boom here in New Zealand. In part this is a response to growing mainstream nature of the sport globally, especially with its inclusion in the Olympics, (as and when it happens). In the UK there are now around 1 million people who use climbing walls annually, with 60% of these climbers only ever climbing indoors - in other words climbing is no longer a fringe activity anymore. These gyms when done well also fulfil a significant social function to a local (climbing) community. Alongside climbing and, or bouldering they often offer a multitude of other services, commonly a cafe and communal space. A gear shop, yoga classes, massage and physiotherapy are not uncommon additions too. Who would have predicted a year ago how important these kinds of places may well become, especially with new ways of working?

A perfect day in the outdoors (Part 2) - Coffee and pie in Sheffield on the way home!

One of the big silver linings of the pandemic may well be a change to a more active, outdoorsy’ population. As the activities and demands of people / consumers / patients change, so too must healthcare flex to accommodate the changes. International expeditions and adventure tourism aren't popular choices while global travel uncertainties remain, and people continue to suffer with Covid-19. But necessity is the mother of invention as people focus on things closer to home. The inception of the new 29 day, 600km, Camino De Sydney” walk is a perfect example of this.

So we may now find that the biggest third space of all, the outdoors, is set to become more important than ever. With those of us with an interest in wilderness medicine, we are in many ways perfectly placed to advise on it. We understand the effort and reward that goes in achieving good and satisfying days in the outdoors. We know what makes for a great climb, a good kayaking trip, a rewarding day on the bicycle etc... We're knowledgeable on blister management, getting our hydration and nutrition right for that personal best, the appropriate equipment to make the days more enjoyable and productive. 

The Rox in Memphis is just one of many climbing walls that now play a vital role in the local community. Take a few minutes to watch Soul Deep to find out more!

There is a wealth of evidence, both personal anecdotal and peer reviewed scientific, for improvements in our long term mental and physical health through participation in outdoor activities. But with our healthcare systems orientated towards the treatment and management of disease/injury we frequently minimise “wellness”. It’s perhaps a bit fluffy and not academic, so it gets glossed over, or taken for granted.

On the back of this time of huge social change, Ill leave with a reflection. I think we all now have a greater appreciation for many of the simpler things in life, things that we may have taken for granted in times past. So I wonder if now is time to (re)claim “wellness” back into the mainstream health sector?  Clearly the public, in unprecedented numbers are seeking wellness. So how are we in healthcare going to meet that challenge?  What kind of training and resources do we need to service and maintain a nation’s wellness?  

Thanks Robin for your post!

Robin's fascinating post on psychological first aid can be found here.

If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.


The Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES) and the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) have joined forces to organise the 2021 Altitude Research Conference. The face-to-face event will take place in Birmingham on the 11th September. Speakers will include Peter Bartsch, Jo Bradwell and Chris Imray. There will also be presentations from members of the UK's leading research groups as well as ample opportunity for researchers, young and old, to present posters and short talks about their work.

Further details can be found here.

2 thoughts on “The Third Space (R)evolution

Diggory North commented 6 months, 1 week ago
Great article. Integrative medicine and social prescribing are becoming more and more widespread, particularly at the community / GP level. There are new courses for healthcare professionals in these popping up everywhere now. I really hope that exercise / nature prescription will become our go-to intervention in the community!
Robyn commented 6 months, 1 week ago
Great post, I really enjoyed this and we've had many conversations to this effect. My partner is a mountain guide and (luckily) he has found that he's had a surprising number of trips this last few months when we expected they might be scarce due to lack of tourism globally. We are lucky in that Kenya is one of the few countries "open" for tourism which I'm sure has contributed but it does definitely feel here as if people are keen for outdoors activities which is really encouraging. I love the idea of reclaiming wellness and preventative medicine or holistic medicine or whatever you'd like to call it...into our practice. A friend of mine has recently trained in functional medicine (she is originally a GP) and it has been so much fun to watch the process as she is able to support people in changing their daily habits to improve their health. I hope that Robin is correct and this pandemic leaves us with a long-lasting appreciation of the simple things and nature! On that note - anyone who hasn't read "the nature fix" by Florence Williams should go and find a copy! :)

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