Friday, November 9, 2012

Benches vs Tables and Chairs

 Benches vs  Moveable Chairs and Tables

...Walking is the healthiest way to get around outside of cycling, and a third of New Yorkers do just that. But it's really hard to find a place to sit down.
 Janette Sadik-Khan NYC Commissioner Dept of Transportation

At Park Chelsea one of our primary goals is to have "A seat near every street". We  take this position for two reasons, one to create an age friendly Chelsea where senior citizens and mobility impaired residents can find a place to sit and relax outdoors without having to tre to a centralized park that may be some distance from where they live. The other reason is that no matter what your age you may get tired and want to rest and what you want is a seat as near as possible to your present location.    What kinds of seats do we recommend to meet this goal ? For sidewalks, due to  space constraints,  we recommend benches and you can see here the ones that have been installed as part of  NYC's Citybench program. 

For  areas with less spacial constraints  we feel a mix of benches and chairs/tables is optimal. Here's why based on the works of a number of social scientists.

Do people prefer moveable seating?
"In his classic 1980 study of the use of public spaces in New York City, William H. Whyte and his team of researchers used cameras to watch people and understand how they used the public places in the city. One of the takeaways from the film footage was that people like to sit in public places, and, far more fascinatingly, that if given the option they will almost always move chairs before they sit in them.
In his film, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte shows this phenomenon in action.

Whyte, who passed away in 1999, saw this as a crucial aspect of designing good public spaces and parks – especially in a heavily populated area like New York City." link

Top photo, a railway station with seating meant to discourage conversation. Bottom a European sidewalk cafe with seating that encourages conversation
Several years ago, a talented and perceptive physician
named Humphry Osmond was asked to direct a large health
and research center in Saskatchewan. His hospital was one
of the first in which the relationship between semifixed-feature
space and behavior was clearly demonstrated. Osmond had
noticed that some spaces, like railway waiting rooms, tend to
keep people apart. These he called sociofugal spaces. Others,
such as the booths in the old-fashioned drugstore or the tables
at a French sidewalk cafe, tend to bring people together.
These he called sociopetal

The hospital of which he was in charge was replete with sociofugal  
spaces and had very few which might be called sociopetal. Furthermore,
 the custodial staff and nurses tended to prefer the former 
to the latter because they were easier to maintain. Chairs in the halls,
 which would be found in little circles after visiting hours, would
soon be lined up neatly in military fashion, in rows along the
walls. from: The hidden dimension - Edward Twitchell Hall

Note that the custodial staff liked the ones that were easier for them  to maintain, not the ones that were preferred by the people who would actually be using the seating.

 The psychologist Robert Sommer was asked by Osmond to learn about the relationship of furniture to conversations. Sommer studied the way people interacted over a 36 x 72 table...

 D                                     F


F-A Across the corner

C-B Side by side
C-D Across the table
E-A From one end to the other
E-F Diagonally the length of the table
C-F Diagonally across the table


Fifty observational sessions in which conversations were
counted at controlled intervals revealed that: F-A (cross corner)
conversations were twice as frequent as the C-B (side
by side) type, which in turn were three times as frequent as
those at C-D (across the table). No conversations were observed
by Sommer for the other positions. In other words,
corner situations with people at right angles to each other produced
six times as many conversations as face-to-face situations
across the 36-inch span of the table, and twice as many
as the side-by-side arrangement.
The results of these observations suggested a solution to
the problem of gradual disengagement and withdrawal of the
old people.


 Many have had the experience of getting a room nicely arranged, only to find conversation was impossible if chairs were left nicely arranged. -Silent Language


     As the works of these social scientists show  moveable seating creates  spaces which are far more conducive to social interaction. this fact has been been well known for over 40 years now, yet designers still create spaces with benches only. Why do architects still  design like this?   

Fred Kent at the Project for Public Spaces may have answered that question in his article "Who Does Design Really Serve"The point that he made was designers want to  create "great" designs that are meant to look good and  win competitions, and seem to be ignoring the fact that people are actually using these spaces.   

Welcome to Canada's "best" new public space. You can tell people are proud of the design, because no one wants to mess it up by actually using it. / Photo: Fred Kent 

 ACUI colleagues discuss visually stunning new facilities, designed by internationally acclaimed architects, which somehow “will not attract people.” We hear stories of both deeply traditional designs and modern high-tech motifs that may attract people to pass through them, but not to hang out in them. People may come in to grab a coffee or a sandwich, but they do not choose to spend time and interact with anyone else; they keep

 Here is another take...

Benches in parks, train stations, bus shelters and other public places are meant to offer seating, but only for a limited duration. Many elements of such seats are subtly or overtly restrictive. Arm rests, for instance, indeed provide spaces to rest arms, but they also prevent people from lying down or sitting in anything but a prescribed position. This type of design strategy is sometimes classified as "hostile architecture," or simply: "unpleasant design." Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić, co-editors of the book Unpleasant Design, are quick to point out that unpleasant designs are not failed designs, but rather successful ones in the sense that they deter certain activities by design.

Involvement and Participation
The concept of involvement and participation
underlies this whole report. It seems central to the
comments of all our consultants. Rand has
summarized the point when he says, "Designed
environments which are thought out. formalized,
and complete are usually lifeless' and
unapproachable because (a) they do not invite
interaction and modification to suit immediate
human needs; (b) they are unable to grow, develop
and become extended through human use. Human
habitation merely fulfills (for better or far worse)
the designer's conception of their potential
meaning rather than leading to the discovery
of new functions and new forms of interaction.
Oddly enough [he goes on to say] many environ-
sents which 'work' well for people meet few
if any, aesthetic criteria ordinarily employed
by designers." From New York, New York (1968)
 by Lawrence Halpern and Associates. 

I have to agree with both Kent and  Halprin. I see seating all the time that looks as if it were added to be a design element rather then  be optimized for the use by people. 
This spot in a coop in Forest Hills offers a great deal of seating which is nice and symmetrical and pleasing to the eye,  but lousy for actual social interactions by people. There is a great deal of open space in front of the benches but no way to use it by the seniors who live here. Management was asked by one of the residents to add a table and chairs in the space. They were not interested in the suggestion.

Here's another great looking design in the same area. I'm sure it helped sell the houses. But here's an interesting thing. Just before  I took this picture I also too a second picture just around the corner from this space.
 This family is having a gathering. They have chosen NOT to use the fine looking benches  around the corner, rather they brought out their own table and seating to use.

 “Given a fine location, it is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.William H. Whyte

Getting it Right

“First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.”
Jan Gehl from Denmark » Life must come before spaces, which in turn should come before buildings

The NYC DOT Plazas program has some of the best seating for social interactions that  I've seen.  In designing the program they consulted with the  architect Jan Gehl who puts people first, and the design of the DOT Plazas shows this. 

Flatiron Plaza seating link

 The tables and chairs in the above photograph are movable and randomly repositioned constantly. Does the space show a nice symmetrical pattern? No, rather the pattern one is of placement in positions of the street furniture in positions  that  really works for the intended users. 


99 Jane Street POPS in meatpacking District

It's interesting contrasting the seating in  this space to one of  the seating areas in the John A Seravelli Playground several blocks away. 

Must unguarded chairs walk off? here's another opinion...

  "In municipalities there's the sense that if it's not bolted down, it will move beyond the park landscape. Well, we see all over the city those little foldup chairs and they're not bolted down, they're not even chained," Price says, referring to the chairs added to pedestrianized plazas and street corners in Manhattan, such as Times Square. "They're on all the intersections throughout the whole Manhattan landscape right now and they don’t seem to be walking away." link

Whatever you call these chairnappings, there are subtle ways to prevent them. When Denver first put out sturdy green chairs with comfortable arm rests, thieves made off with 80 percent of them within 18 months. "They may have fit too nicely in a back yard," says John Desmond, who works for the Downtown Denver Partnership, a business improvement district. Recently, the Partnership replaced those chairs with ones painted either yellow or purple. They don't have armrests and people are likely to be ready to move on after about a half-hour. "We want them to be comfortable enough to sit in for a short while," Desmond says. "At the same time, we don't want them to be so comfortable that people take them home with them."

The intense focus on losing chairs is probably misplaced--fountains lose water and still they flow. And as park managers who've used movable chairs know, many more of them break or wear out each year than get ripped off. As Bryant Park's Barth sees it, movable seating should not be viewed as a fixed asset like a statue or a park bench, but instead as a commodity such as garden mulch or toilet paper that must be regularly restocked. "These chairs increase the social life of the park," Barth says. "You can't quantify that financially."   link

In Conclusion to quote the folks at Project for Public spaces....
Good public spaces give people a choice of where and how they would like to sit. They provide different types of seating options such as ledges, steps, benches, moveable chairs as well as different places or locations within the same area, such as in the sun, in the shade, in groups, alone, close to activity, or somewhat removed from activity. link

From UC Davis Study on Seating

Factors we found that contribute to comfortable places to sit in public space
include access, comfort, relationship to views, sun and shade, movability, and
ability to be together or alone.
• The Hunt Hall experiment found that movable seating is popular and well
used offering a low cost way to expand seating and social space. 70% of
people observed were utilizing movable chairs compared to fixed seating

• The movable chairs at Hunt Hall contribute significantly to the social life and
interaction of the building occupants. In addition, many students, staff,
faculty and visitors from other parts of the campus were observed using the
Based on the popularity of the experiment, the department bought and placed
an additional dozen movable chairs on the Hunt Patio in Spring 2010 with
more planned

Over thirty years ago, the sociologist William H. Whyte published The Social Life of
Small Urban Spaces, a landmark book on urban public space (1980). Based on detailed
observations of plazas and parks in New York City, it found comfortable seating to be
the primary ingredient to successful public space
. Whyte writes:
Ideally, sitting should be physically comfortable--benches with backrests, wellcontoured
chairs. It's more important, however, that it be socially comfortable. This
means choice: sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups,
off alone. Choice should be built into the basic design. Even though benches and
chairs can be added, the best course is to maximize the sittability of inherent features.
This means making ledges so they are sittable, or making other flat surfaces do double
duty as tabletops or seats. There are almost always such opportunities. Because the
elevation changes somewhat on most building sites, there are bound to be several
levels of flat space. It's no more trouble to make them sittable than not to.
Whyte’s findings have been confirmed in numerous studies since in a variety of cities
and countries (Carr et. al. 1992, Gehl 1997).
The Project for Public Spaces (2010) in New York City proposes the following
guidelines for sittable space:
Good public spaces give people a choice of where and how they would like to sit. They
provide different types of seating options such as ledges, steps, benches, moveable
chairs as well as different places or locations within the same area, such as in the sun,
in the shade, in groups, alone, close to activity, or somewhat removed from activity

Hunt Hall Findings
People use and do move movable chairs. In fact our Hunt experiment shows that they
are constantly in motion. This is due to their inherent comfort and sociability including
allowing greater choice than fixed seating for sun or shade, be alone or together in a
group, talking with others, capturing the best views and sitting in hardscapes or green
People also sit in the movable chairs when they are provided. In a number of
cases individuals occupying chairs were joined by others on their way in or out of the
building. Indirectly, the existence of movable chairs increased socialbility in the outdoor

At Hunt Hall, despite the number of available sitting opportunities, considerable
number of users were occupying movable chairs (70%) than fixed seating (30%).
found outdoor seating to be primarily used by students but also by a large number of
faculty and staff from Hunt Hall and adjacent buildings. The majority were woman
users perhaps due to the current mix of landscape architecture majors housed in the
ground floor of Hunt Hall. Most of the movable chairs and fixed seating were used by
single users (72%) although some were used for group activities including talking,
eating and working on group projects. In some cases the chairs were moved to create a
circle for faculty meetings and to have lunch with candidates visiting for an open faculty
position in landscape architecture (See Figure 29). Most frequently observed activities in
the movable chairs were eating, reading, holding conversations and using cell phones.