If we think of a park chances are that a bench is one of the first images that our mind will conjure. This most welcoming element of street furniture has had songs inspired by it - we think of the wonder that is Brassens’ famous “Les amoureux qui se becottent sur les bancs publics” - you can find it here - and is a classic of cinematography and photography. But is it the best tool to get people to enjoy your public space? At Myplacemaking.com we offer both chairs and benches but we think of them as very different tools.
Why is that? Chairs offer unparalleled flexibility. You will notice that users very rarely sit down on an available chair. Rather, they will grab hold of it, and move it slightly, even if is only by an inch, or reorient it just a bit. In doing so they are taking control of the space and customizing the experience of their stay. They are choosing at what distance they wish to stay form all the others in the space, usually very close with friends and lovers, further away with colleagues and acquaintances, and even further out with strangers. They can choose sun or shade, this or that part of the space: the garden of the arcade. Chairs are wonderful to accommodate a diverse crowd, they require little space and overall are cheaper and more versatile than any other type of seating.
Benches shine in linear environments and are as useful as markers of a geography as they are of comfortable seating. Whereas chairs are free wheeling and itinerant, benches are the stable placeholders of public space and give us a sense of the desired flow, and sanction the pastime of people watching. They encourage us to sit down and look at a certain view and offer us the opportunity of an exchange of glances in a certain place.
When you consider your space, ask yourself: what am trying to do here? If the informality and the spontaneity of the public space is first, chairs will be the answer. If rather you wish to define a place and make sense of a broader space, then benches will be the tool of choice.