Saturday, October 16, 2021

The social life of a city bench

by Mateja Mihinjac

As a CPTED professional, I experience the socio-physical environment in a more critical and analytical way than a general person. I observe features that may stimulate pro-social conduct as well as those that may offer opportunities for undesirable behaviour or even promote risk for users of those spaces. And yet, the decisions concerning the planning of public space are not straightforward.

Public benches represent one such conundrum. I’ve written previously that knee jerk reactions, such as removal of public benches, are common in an attempt to eliminate social problems such as unwanted loitering, sleeping on public benches, or vandalism.  

Yet these decisions often come with the realisation that they don’t address the problem but rather displace it. They become tools of exclusion. 

Can a humble public bench become a tool of inclusion?


As Kelsey I. Sagrero writes in her thesis Socializing Public Space: Benches in the Urban Setting, a bench can be more than just a bench. When planned with its function in mind, it can be a tool that attracts people and promotes social interaction in public spaces. Thus, she writes, we should make benches an intentional part of social spaces in which they are situated to promote social interaction and inclusivity of diverse groups. As such, a bench represents an important part of public social life.

One such initiative comes from the UK with strategically placed “Happy to chat” benches. The purpose of those benches is to promote conversation for their users and address the problem of loneliness and alienation, especially amongst the elderly.

In my exploration of the City of Helsingborg, Sweden, I also came across some interesting examples of benches that instantly attracted my attention.

The first was pride rainbow benches painted ahead of the 2021 Helsingborg Pride Festival. The purpose of the benches was to demonstrate that expression of diversity and inclusion are not limited to the LGBTQ community alone and are an important conversation starter in urban space.

The second was yellow friendship benches situated in different areas around the city. They attracted my attention with their happy bright yellow colour and a sign “A hello can save a life”. These benches intend to raise awareness of mental illness and suicide and to offer support through care and respect for one another through informal interpersonal conversations.

As these public benches have become places for promoting social interaction and conversations, and thus a form of third places, they have also become tools of social messaging that reflects societal struggles and sentiments and advances the conversation on important topics such as diversity, inclusion, and mental health. 

It's fascinating how a humble piece of street furniture can serve such an important social role in public life.