Apple Bets on Third Placemaking


During Apple’s annual iPhone launch event this week, in addition to stunning promo videos and an introduction to their brand-new headquarters, the company also announced their intention to overhaul their retail design and rename hundreds of stores “Town Squares.”

“We don’t call them stores anymore, we call them town squares,” said Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, on stage describing these gathering spaces.

Private entities taking ownership of public spaces isn’t a new concept. Cities like New York, NY have long been blurring the lines between public space and commerce. Private companies own and manage hundreds of plazas and parks in the city, not to mention streets and other public areas. When budgets and political support to create new communities in cities start to disappear, corporations can provide and monetize these gathering spaces. Offering public gathering spaces isn’t just for companies like Apple. Bringing more people into stores, and offering community-centric events creates community around any brand or product.

The shift in verbiage and ideology behind store design and retail strategy matters. Stores are regulated, surveilled, and designed by companies for selling goods. Heat maps, sensors, and big data will all become more powerful and could drive a wedge between brands and their markets. With these strategies in place, a push for community can feel contrived and manipulative. If we continue to look at space and commerce in the same way, stores won’t be sustainable as public spaces.

Instead, retailers must employ the ideology of Third Placemaking. Our theory is rooted in intentional design, the marketing theory of third place, and the architectural theory of placemaking. Combined, they describe how businesses and communities may create a physical space that empowers people to create a spiritual, emotional, and psychological connection; an experience.

Public life has always been closely tied with the economy and shopping. We need these public spaces that allow like-minded people to gather with their dissenters and develop a community around something they have in common. Apple’s choice to begin calling their stores a “town square” is a step in the right direction, but is that enough?