A few years ago, at the Minneapolis ASLA Annual Meeting, I heard a speaker talk about two chairs that were stolen from his front porch. They were Adirondack chairs that he made, so he was disappointed when they came up missing. His first response was to find a way to get the chairs back, but after further contemplation, he concluded that if someone needed a place to sit so badly that they stole his chairs, perhaps he should make more. He asked a couple of older kids wandering the neighborhood, the kids he often had wondered if they were up to no good, if they would be willing to help build some chairs in exchange for pay. They agreed and set off making two chairs for every house in the neighborhood.
“Thousands of people cooped up in rooms and corridors need a place where they can change their depth of focus and be in nature while in the heart of the city.” – From the Bryant Park Renovation project in New York City
While the story from Minneapolis continued to discuss an art installation at the Capitol with hundreds of Adirondack chairs, the point that really struck me was the chairs for the neighborhood. It seemed to be a way, not just to provide new seating, but to reinforce stoop culture and socialization. Stoop culture, an important part of building community in cities (especially the boroughs of New York or neighborhoods in Boston), functioned around the public seating offered by the steps/stoops to a building. Many different components make up well used public spaces, but there is perhaps no more important component than where people will sit. According to William H. Whyte, a renown anthropologist and urban designer, people are more likely to congregate where there are place to sits. Ironically, the most important aspect of seating isn’t comfort, it’s flexibility and the freedom to chose how and where.
In his study entitled, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”, Whyte three main types of seating critical to successful urban gathering places: Ledges and steps, benches, and movable seats. South Bend tends doesn’t have many ledges or steps throughout the downtown, but the ones we do have either by the courthouse or in John Hunt Plaza around the fountain are well used both as seats and as tables. The same can be said of the few benches.
Whyte derided benches as artifacts whose purpose “is to punctuate architectural photographs” (SLSUS, 33). Often rooted to the ground, benches are too few in number, too small, or too closely grouped together for individuals to feel comfortable. They may also be removed from whatever action is happening on the plaza. Whyte strongly felt that architects and planners defaulted to using benches because of their aesthetic appeal: benches give a plaza the false appearance of being suitable for sitting, when in fact their static placement belies social comfort and mobility.
With that in mind, what’s really lacking in South Bend is the movable seating. The ideal combination of comfort and choice according to Whyte. Able to move to occupy the users need for sun or shade as well as to join groups or break away from them, movable tables and chairs are largely vacant from South Bend’s public spaces. This is never more true than during some of the most popular events the downtown hosts like Art Beat, where the seats are cloistered around the stages.
Unfortunately, many of the measures designed to decrease loitering and deter “undesirables” tend to have the same effect on everyone else too. Interventions, like chair bombing, have been used with some success to reclaim public spaces that have largely been privatized. This effort tends to use non-aesthetic approaches like reclaimed pallets, though Whyte noted that aesthetics are not largely a factor in people’s choice to sit or not. Regardless of how seating is increased downtown, it’s clear that if South Bend’s goal is to attract and retain people in the downtown, we should take a page out of William Whyte’s “Street Life” book and improve the seating downtown.