“This might not strike you as an intellectual bombshell but people like to sit where there are places for them to sit.” William H. Whyte.
Whyte applied this concept to public spaces. He found that while people don’t care too much about the architectural design of a public space, what they do care about is one simple thing: places to sit. And, they especially like steps and ledges, perhaps because they don’t appear intended for sitting. They also like chairs they can move around, so they can create their own groups or sit apart and read.
So, one of the most important, if not the most important, amenities of a placemaking project is seating. Seating helps to insure that people relax, linger and stay.
Urban designers and city officials now recognize that comfortable seating is an essential ingredient of successful downtowns. Adding seating to the public realm is an easy street improvement that can be made by individuals, community groups, business districts, and others, often as part of an overall streetscape project.
Public seating creates a comfortable, useable, and active public environment where people can rest, socialize, read, or people-watch. It is a simple gesture that can go far to create an important sense of place. Seating creates places where people can see and be seen. This ability to entice people to linger is the hallmark of great and successful public spaces.
Seating should be accessible, comfortable, well-maintained, and located in the right places is critical to successful placemaking. Comfort may include protection from the sun, rain or wind as well as ability to sit alone or in a group.
The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) believes good public spaces give people a choice of where and how they would like to sit. They provide different types of seating options such as ledges, steps, benches, moveable chairs as well as different places or locations within the same area, such as in the sun, in the shade, in groups, alone, close to activity, or somewhat removed from activities.
PPS points out a few basics to consider when incorporating seating into a public space.
Location, Location, Location
That maxim about real estate also applies to seating, whose placement is incredibly important. Seating should be located within view of the action, but out of the way of the flow of pedestrian traffic. Placed in relation to other amenities, such as concessions, shelters, kiosks, telephones, waste receptacles, water fountains, and bathrooms, seating can be used as a catalyst for social activity in particular areas. Clustering amenities attracts people and activity, and helps to increase peoples’ level of social comfort. Social comfort can, in turn, help to facilitate spontaneous social interactions and activities.
Locations for seating are places where there are people, especially in areas where people can watch other people.
Looking Good, Feeling Good
Good public spaces give people a choice of where and how they would like to sit. They provide different types of seating options such as ledges, steps, benches, moveable chairs as well as different places or locations within the same area, such as in the sun, in the shade, in groups, alone, close to activity, or somewhat removed from activity.
Supporting how people sit or ways in which people like to sit on benches or seats affects seating design. Teenagers, for example, often sit on the back of the bench, rather than on the seat, creating a need for benches that are constructed with stronger materials or larger wood slats. Places where several activities occur, that have opportunities for people watching from different directions, or where people like to take advantage of front and back views (such as the beach, as well as the boardwalk), are better suited to benches that have adjustable backs or no backs, or moveable chairs, allowing users to choose the direction they would like to face. Benches with no backs (as well as ledges) allow people to sit on both sides at the same time.
Provide people with a level of social comfort by giving them the opportunity to choose. William Whyte suggests that in addition to benches and chairs, choice should be incorporated into the design by maximizing the seating possibilities in the inherent features of the place. This means making ledges or surfaces usable for multiple purposes such as tables and seating (See The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, page 28). Experimentation with the location and grouping of seating combined with evaluation is recommended to see what works well and what doesn’t.
Keeping Up Appearances
No seating is perfectly vandal-resistant. The best solution to vandalism lies in developing an understanding of what types of vandalism occur, at what times, and by what types of people, then trying to develop a program that will prevent it from occurring. Of course, the best deterrent to vandalism is heavy and frequent use by everyone else.
The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) thinks one of the best types of seating is the moveable chair. Not perfect in every situation but this may be the case in most places. Why? Several reasons. First, chairs are more comfortable than benches. Second, they’re inexpensive. Costs vary, but you can provide roughly 10 moveable chairs for the price of one bench or even less. Third, people can arrange chairs how they like, to sit nearer or farther apart, and move them around to either sun or shade. This choice allows people to exercise their options to sit near an event, or away in the quiet, wherever they may feel more comfortable. Many times, they will leave them right where they are, or move them just a few inches.
Yes, providing moveable furniture opens up the possibility that it might be stolen. However, if the area is supervised by an attendant, or if the furniture is located near another amenity or activity where staff is present, then vandalism and theft become much less likely.
REALTORS® are also seeing the value of seating as most projects funded by NAR’s Placemaking Micro-grant involve seating. In fact, our very first application, “The Art of Seating”, was a project to have local high school students build 10 benches for the local farmer’s market, which up to this point, had not place for the community to gather. During one of the farmer’s markets, a resident noted that she could now bring her mother to the market. Her mother had wanted to check out the market but did not have a lot of stamina to stand the whole time. Having the benches there now gives her a place to sit, relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of the market.
So, what type of seating will work best for your placemaking project?