The humble park bench is often taken for granted: you could easily walk past one without so much as a second glance.
But after decades of anonymity, this common piece of street furniture has found itself at the centre of a roaring debate about urban design. It’s become the symbol of resistance for those advocating people-friendly towns and cities, while at the same time being feared as a trigger for anti-social behaviour.
Urban design influences the way society behaves: consider the recent rise of hostile architecture, designed to deter people from spending time in the public realm. I have one prime example in mind, a personal bugbear: the slanting seats at some of London’s bus stops. If you’ve ever tried to rest your weary backside on one of these, perching is an understatement. It’s tottering, at best, and it drives me spare.
The Camden bench. Image: Factory Furniture.
But design that excludes people from spending time in public places can be much more severe. Wave shaped benches with nowhere to rest your arms; the much-revered Camden bench (above), aimed at preventing rough sleeping and skateboarding – these are just two examples of the anti-social street furniture littering our streets. In China, the government has taken the notion one step further with a pay-as-you-go system for benches that gives passers-by a rude and spikey shock if they linger too long. In some parts of the US, it’s even illegal to sit on the footpath.
While streets make up the largest area of publicly accessible open space in our towns and cities, a variety of social forces are increasingly keeping people indoors. Public benches can be viewed as high risk, with residents fearing they’ll become settings for antisocial behaviour, drugs and alcohol abuse. The result of these negative connotations is that public seating in new schemes often gets pushed out or is not a serious consideration, because of the fear that it’ll be misused.
If properly installed, however, public benches are one element inclusive design that can transform the local environment. Sustrans is working on a street design project on the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, east London. A number of local residents had fears about public seating – but despite local examples of people misusing street furniture, the community recognised that many of its elderly neighbours needed a place to sit down while out and about.
And they were right – the World Health Organisation has published guidance for age-friendly cities, which includes the need for public benches that provided resting spots for the elderly. Without these, the WHO says, many older people feel trapped indoors, unable to travel to the local shops and isolated from visiting friends and family on foot.
By getting to know the residents over time, Sustrans was able to find a solution that creates a pleasant space in the community where people can spend time without the fear of antisocial behaviour. By testing out temporary seating designs at community events, members of the community were able to decide for themselves what would work best in their area.
Since the benches went in, lots of people have been using them at different times of the day. Coupled with the other changes on the Becontree Estate, their presence changes the feeling of the area entirely, asserting confidence in the neighbourhood and improving residents’ quality of life. Terry, who is registered disabled and walks with a crutch, told us: “Now I can walk down to here and sit down, walk up the hill to lean against the fence and walk up to the bench over the hill and then come back the same way. It makes life easier for me. I think it’s fantastic.” A member of the local business community has even made some public benches of his own and committed to maintaining them on behalf of the community: it’s all a far cry from the initial concerns many locals held about the anti-social impact public seating might have.
There are a host of wonderful examples of innovation that are producing exciting, people-friendly public spaces. Vancouver has led the way with antidote to the UK’s anti-homeless benches by installing public seats that convert neatly into homeless shelters at night. In Boston, young people are encouraged to sit and wait while they charge their phones on solar-powered benches.
A Narnia bench designed for London's Books About Town project. Image: Books About Town.
Even good old London has given the humble park bench a new lease of life, with these installations that celebrate our literary history. But my personal favourite has to be these benches, made from over 12,000 plastic shopping bags that would have otherwise gone to landfill and now adorn streets and parks of Iowa.
By giving people the opportunity to sit down to watch the world go by, you strengthen the vision of a neighbourhood with positive aspirations and community spirit. The hope is that this begins to change the way the community interacts, the way it is viewed beyond its boundary, and the way people spend time outside the four walls of their home.
This is placemaking in one of its simplest forms: providing street furniture that integrates and connects with existing communities. In this way we are facilitating different modes of travel, providing access for all, and creating the conditions for social interaction and the development of strong communities.
Phillippa Banister is a street design officer at Sustrans.