Saturday, October 31, 2009

Benches in the Greatest City in America

It is fascinating how often we see a photograph like this, very characteristic for Baltimore, an icon in a way. It is a perfect image to mock the city for all its social problems. But also it is somewhat nostalgic, depending on the setting where you find a bench like that. And it appears in different parts of the city. It is simple ‘old-fashioned’ bench designed for a comfort of sitting and does not try to discriminate the user (well, it might do so for all the other cities in America).

Seeing one of those benches on the way home from work one day got me thinking about public seating as an arsenal of inclusion. Mr. Whyte in his film illustrated the importance of a successful public space which highly depends on a good public seating. But first of all, a bench itself on a city street is there intentionally to make people comfortable to spend time outside, to open the city, isn’t it?

The number of benches appears to be greater in public places: parks, plazas, near colleges, city centers of some sort. But sometimes we also stumble upon ‘lonely’ ones. They don’t have an apparent reason of being where they are located, unlike the ones in the spaces listed above. However, all of them are always useful; we need them. They do open the city and draw people to spend time outside and interact.

I grew up in an average, rather populated for its size eastern European Post-Soviet city. As teenagers, my friends and I spent a lot of time sitting on benches. We would meet after school and talk, when there was nothing better to do (or to avoid doing homework). But it was not that easy to find a bench when you needed one, they all were taken. People were sitting on benches and simply talking, waiting for a bus, taking brakes from work, waiting for dates, reading a newspapers, discussing politics, drinking beer (which is another ‘weapon’ of inclusion); old ladies were sitting on benches in front of apartment building and sharing rumors about their neighbors and so on. Many of these examples more or less apply to different cities in US that I have visited. A simple bench is an essential element of a city.

Public seating is becoming very discriminative, exclusive, insulting to the user sometimes. It is designed to be uncomfortable on purpose. However, this doesn’t always stop the people from using the seating spaces in the way they want to; it just requires a little creativity sometimes. It would not be too bad if there were more places to sit on the streets and we spend more time outside with or without an apparent reason of being there.

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