It might not be the best time of the year to sit on a bench particularly here in London... Let's nevertheless look at them as they are important features of our daily urban landscape. Sharing public spaces is part of our city life and benches are free and there for all to enjoy. They are also great placemaking tools as they connect communities within a particular space.
By walking in various cities, one can notice an increased diversity in "urban" furniture. Some benches are newly designed, others are simply transformed. Creativity is more and more apparent. Today, city benches are no longer based on the traditional plain wooden park bench model. They take all sorts of shapes, colour and design. Their size, position and structure influence their function and use.
The primary function of a bench is obviously to sit, observe and chat. In many countries with good weather, people sit all year round on the structure located in the main square. But, in most cities, various users share urban benches at different time of the day: supervising parents while their kids are playing, local workers enjoying their lunch break, older people resting from their walk, people escaping from loneliness...
Many regeneration projects include interesting seating area allowing for groups to gather and socialize.
There is a positive trend to encourage networking with the installation of groups of individual seats allowing for easier and friendly communication.
Most of the time, urban people love to find informal, intimate, flexible and improvised seating.
There is also a trend for increasing seating facilities during the good season by adding beach chairs in the urban environment.
The shapes of traditional benches have been redesigned in some cities to allow residents and tourists to pause and enjoy the sunshine.
In new mixed used developments, seating areas are becoming an essential feature and various considerations such as accessibility, comfort, safety, durability and cost have to be carefully balanced.
It is however a sad fact that in some urban areas, benches have bad reputation. By fear of antisocial behaviour and to discourage extended sitting, some seating areas have been designed to be particularly uncomfortable (this is often referred as “hostile architecture”). The example is “the Camden bench”, a piece of concrete commissioned in 2012 by Camden Council to deter the use of the bench for sleeping, littering, skateboarding, drug dealing, graffiti… We all know that the problem to tackle is not the bench itself and that the involvement of the local community must be real to be successful. During Placemaking Week in Amsterdam, we followed a small initiative in a disadvantaged area where a group of volunteers asked what the children wanted to change in their neighbourhood. One of the things they requested was to change the position of the existing benches to allow more people to stay together and to add some colours and fun around them.
Another area which influences urban seating is the concept of smart cities. We see more and more initiatives allowing for the public use of technology. An example is the Ford Smart Benches offering free solar powered mobile charging and wifi access while you sit and rest.
An interesting Manifesto for the Good Bench has been drafted by Radhika Bynon and Clare Rishbeth and can be found here.
Do share your pictures of your favourite benches!