by Mateja Mihinjac
The public bench has become an indispensable part of city life. It represents a primary seating option for taking a rest, conversing with a friend, having a coffee or a meeting, or simply observing the theatre of the street.
However, occasionally a bench is blamed for drug dealing, panhandling, loitering, vagrancy, or homelessness. This has led to calls for eradicating them or revamping them to reduce their attractiveness for prolonged occupation.
This knee-jerk reaction is not uncommon. We’ve written before about target-hardening approaches, hostile architecture and even vilifying the trees for crime problems and safety issues.
Criminalizing loitering, especially when perceived as acts of lower social class, is a common example that diminishes use of public space.
These simplistic decisions are often underthought, short-lived, and are notorious for dehumanizing particular groups of people.
The question of removing benches extends beyond the presence street furniture. It is also about civility, ethics and inclusion. This sentiment comes from our New Zealand SafeGrowth Advocate, Sue Ramsay, who argues that the public debate around city planning should not only evolve around walkability but also sitability. Consider, for example, the needs of the elderly and less able groups in public space.
BEYOND THE BENCH
In a bid to address undesirable uses cities should encourage positive uses of their downtowns if they don’t wish to surrender them to vilified groups. Installation of benches, in particular, is often part of downtown revitalization programs because they attract diverse users and communicate to them they are welcome to use public space.
Importantly, we should be aware that disorder and undesirable behaviors are a symptom of a social problem greater than design.
Before vilifying the bench, how about clearly understanding what underlies the problem and targeting collaborative programs that help? How about work programs and skills programs for those with nowhere to go but benches? How about revitalizing downtowns through festivals, activities, local shops and cafes that focus on desirable activities?
A public bench is the epitome of public life. It allows one to both socialize and be alone, yet remain connected to the social world around them. It is the symbol of access to communal outdoor spaces.