An appealing film and a hard-hitting manifesto highlight the important of benches for the wellbeing of all members of society.
You might expect a project based around two benches to point up the differences between them – especially when one is in an award-winning development designed by Gustafson Porter, and the other is standard issue and rather worse for wear, set on a scruffy piece of open ground. But this is not the outcome defined in the Bench Project, a piece of collaborative work in which Clare Rishbeth of Sheffield University was one of the major participants. Instead, the work, and particularly the resulting film, called ‘Alone Together – the social life of benches’ highlights just how important they are to a wide range of people and that design, if not irrelevant, is certainly not the only important factor.
The other parties in the project were; Radhika Byron of The Young Foundation, Esther Johnson of Sheffield Hallam University (the film maker), Ben Rogaly, professor of human geography at Sussex University, and Jasber Singh of the Greenwich Inclusion Project (one of the benches is in the London Borough of Greenwich).
This may be largely a piece of academic research, but the outcomes could not be more accessible. The film is 15 minutes long and, although it is easy to see that it has lessons about social inclusion, it is not preachy. Instead it is beautifully made and very watchable, using the voices of a wide range of people.
It focuses on two benches, or at least on two places to sit, both in London. General Gordon Square in Woolwich, southeast London, is an urban square that has been revitalised by a design by Gustafson Porter that includes long stone benches, edges to the grass that can be sat on, a water feature and a giant television screen. It has important routes passing through it and is most definitely a square and not a park.
Woolwich has a large Nepalese population. Large groups of elderly women and, separately, men gather and sit side by side in the square. The women wear brightly coloured costumes and chatter and sing, regretting that they cannot communicate outside their group because they don’t speak English. The long bench seems to work well for them, although you wish they could gather in more of a group. Other users of the square include teenagers who gather from a wide area to meet their friends and watch what is going on, Lauren who describes herself as ‘Woolwich Albanian’ and spends up to four hours a day there with her dogs which other passers-by enjoy petting, and Michael, of Jamaican origin, who lost all his money decades ago and spends the time working out lottery numbers.
The other bench is on the St Helier Open Space in Sutton, Surrey. This is a large space of grass set between housing, busy roads and a major hospital. It hasn’t had any of the love and attention that is apparent in Woolwich, but it does have a structure designed for stunt cycling, a young people’s shelter and... a couple of benches. What is striking is how much people appreciate this space. Interviewees include a man with bipolar disorder who says that just five minutes sitting on the bench can make him feel better, a woman with an autistic daughter who says how much happier the girl is when she is out of doors, and an elderly woman who has lived in the area for years and says that she always believed that the space would be built on and how happy she is that it was not.
The lesson from the film is that these are spaces for everybody, and that being out of doors is important to them. It is surprising how much time some people spend there – longer one suspects than the designers or council managers ever believed that they would. These really are spaces for everybody. As Claire Rishbeth said, libraries are also considered as inclusive spaces – but you can’t drink or smoke there, or take your pets.
This is the first point in the publication that Clare produced with Radhika Byron, ‘Benches for everyone: Solitude in public, sociability for free’. This is built round a six-point ‘Manifesto for a good bench’ of which the first point is ‘Benches are valued as public, egalitarian and free.’
Several things struck Clare during the research. One was how much people talked about the impact that open space and benches had on their mental health. Another was how often they referred to places as ‘peaceful’ even though, by any objective measure they were busy and, in the case of St Helier in particular, noisy.
She is also aware of the importance of the design of benches themselves. Those in Gordon Square are elegant but cold, with the Nepalese women bringing cushions to sit on. The fact that the benches are built into landform means that they can’t be removed. The bench at St Helier, with no back, is not idea for long sitting or for people with certain types of disability.
At the launch of the film, at Marshall’s showroom in London, Clare talked briefly about the importance of bench design, with backs and arms and a suitable height, and about the importance of ‘frequency’ which allows the elderly and infirm to plot a journey from bench to bench. But what the film shows is that even benches that are not ideal can be extremely important.
There is much in this work that may seem obvious to many landscape architects, but it has been aimed at a wider audience. And the film in particular makes it clear just how important these benches are to real people – it brings constructs such as ‘equal opportunity’ and ‘mental welfare’ to life. Watch this film and I am sure that you will never look at a bench in the same way again.
Manifesto for the Good Bench
Benches are valued as public, egalitarian and free.
Bench-space allows people to loosely belong within the flow of city life, to see and be seen. Solitude and conversation are equally acceptable.
Sitting on benches supports healthy everyday routines by enabling people to spend longer outside. These opportunities to rest can be restorative for mental health and support local walking when personal mobility is limited.
Benches function as a social resource – they are flexible places to spend time at no cost. This is appreciated by many, and especially vital for people who are largely marginalised from other collective environments such as work, cafes, educational or leisure facilities. They are contrasted positively with crowded, lonely or boring home situations.
Design of benches and of sittable public space is important. Comfort and accessibility are basic requirements. Clustering of benches and co-location with a range of facilities provides interest and gives legitimacy to hanging out. The ability to gather in larger groups is valued by many.
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 seem to increase individual tolerance for the proximity of strangers and diverse ways of enjoying public space.
Making benches better: points for action
Benches should be recognised and promoted as a social good, core to supporting mental health and active lifestyles policies.
Local strategies should address inequality in quantity and quality of benches in urban locations, and these should reflect the access and wellbeing requirements of different users of benches.
Formal and incidental public space should be maximised as a local social resource
by clustering of benches and co-location with leisure facilities and local services.
Design of public spaces should increase the quantity and diversity of non-commercial seating,
and introduce natural elements and planting wherever possible. The traditional two-seater bench may have had its day: longer benches and larger seating structures are more adaptable in supporting fluid social networks.
Benches need to be comfortable as well as robust.
‘Hostile architecture’ approaches have led to a reduction of bench provision and the specification of deliberately uncomfortable seating in some places. Thermal comfort, height, backs and arms of benches need to be human friendly. Research and innovation in product design and landscape architecture are needed.
Management of public spaces should ensure hanging out is legitimised as a non-criminal activity:
balancing safety agendas with a meaningful inclusivity of diverse people and activities. In busy urban places the role of uniformed wardens is largely welcomed in maintaining acceptable communal behaviour as long as this is exercised with a light touch.
Minimise potential conflict to reduce reliance on explicit security measures.
‘Anti-social behaviour’ is often simply differently- social. While violent or hate crime should be actively addressed, this should not be at the expense of bench provision or the quality of the public space. People should be encouraged to use benches through integrated planning, design and management. Key aims should be to support high pedestrian movement through open space networks, maintain good visibility, zone quieter and noisier areas and give options of where to sit.