Well, I guess it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room that sometimes comes up in the planning of a placemaking project. Yes, if you build it they may come, but will everyone who comes be welcomed?
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio caused quite an uproar when he proposed the idea of tearing up a pedestrian plaza in Times Square. His statement was the culmination of several days of debate centered around predatory panhandling and the square’s growing number of “street performers.” But as some critics point out, this idea would not only get rid of the “undesirables” but would also put an end to others, both residents and tourists, from enjoying the space.
Justin Davidson, in a New York magazine article, puts in own spin on this. “But eradicating a pedestrian plaza because you don't like who's walking there is like blasting away a beach because you object to bikinis or paving a park because you hate squirrels. It represents such a profound misunderstanding of public space that it makes me question the mayor's perception of what counts as progressive.”
Benches in public spaces are in particular a point of controversy. Most placemaking planners view seating as a great amenity to include in a public space for people to rest, read a book, have a cup of coffee or to just stop and watch the world go by. Seating is usually a feature of all great walkable communities. If you go out walking, there’s a very good chance that at some point you will want to stop to take a rest.
William Whyte asserts in The Social Life of Small Spaces (1985) that “the quality of any urban environment can be measured, first of all, by whether there are convenient, comfortable places for pedestrians to sit.”
But in some communities, benches are present in far smaller numbers. And, in some communities, benches have become the focus of some heated debates.
Phillippa Banister, in article called The park bench: A powerful symbol in the debate for people-friendly spaces opines that “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.
Accordingly, in some communities, seating has been omitted from placemaking projects or benches have been designed to prevent certain users, like skateboarders and the homeless, from getting too comfy or misusing public property. In China, the government has implemented a pay-as-you-go system for benches that gives passers-by a “rude and spikey shock if they linger too long.”
But while these types of bench designs may dissuade “undesirables” in public spaces, they may also dissuade anyone from visiting the space. And this totally misses the point of placemaking which is to create spaces for the community to gather and to encourage all residents to get out and enjoy public spaces.
Mike Davis observes in City of Quartz (1990) that the city of Los Angeles has constructed hostile street environments to deter its homeless population from claiming public spaces for their own use. But, in the process of “defending” the public against the unsettling and unwelcome reminders of poverty, Los Angeles’ city planners behind these policies ultimately diminish the accessibility of the city’s public spaces.
Research published by the University of Sheffield and The Young Foundation, which is part of the Bench Project, suggests “hanging out on public benches should be recognised as essential for mental health and social wellbeing and should not be viewed as unwelcome lingering or potential anti-social behavior…sitting on benches allows people to spend time outside, which is both beneficial for mental health and allows people to connect with others in their community.”
And the World Health Organization 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. “The availability of seating areas is generally viewed as a necessary urban feature for older people: it is difficult for many older people to walk around their local area without somewhere to rest.”
So what to do?
The Bench Project sums it up quite nicely. “People need to feel safe. Frequently used, visible spaces with a choice of where to sit can support this. A mix of short and long stay bench users supports informal safety in numbers. Quality of materials, attractive planting, and cleanliness of public space seems to increase individual tolerance for the proximity of strangers and diverse ways of enjoying public space.”
The Project of Public Spaces (PPS) suggests focusing on determining what residents truly want out of a public space instead of debating what could go wrong. How should it look? What can it offer? What would bring people to the area – office workers, locals, and tourists alike – and encourage them to stay.
The Bench Project suggests people should be encouraged to use benches through good planning, design and management of spaces. Good visibility, open space, zoned quiet and noisy areas and high pedestrian movement should be used to help people feel safe.
And Banister, in the same article references above, suggests testing out temporary seating designs at community events so residents can decide for themselves what would work best in their neighborhood. “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.”
So before dismissing a placemaking project, or an amenity like benches, because there are concerns of who may use the space, focus instead of how to make the space safe, comfortable and welcoming to everyone.