You can find examples in almost every city, they come in many shapes and types, their popularity waxes and wanes, they can be stark, even ugly, deliberately uncomfortable or attractive, artistic even and ergonomic with consideration given to different populations and individual needs. They intersect my professional worlds of health and community safety policy. Their popularity, use and design tell us a great deal about urban problems and responses to these. Over recent months they have attracted a great deal of my attention and have achieved a new level of importance. This week I am going to consider the humble city bench. I would also like you to consider those in your area.
Look around your local urban environment, you are bound to soon come across examples of public seating. Depending on when they were installed and where located their form may be strikingly different and they may serve more than one purpose. In some areas substantial benches, normally metal, were installed to help protect shops and retail centres from ram raiders. More recently many city centres have seen seats and public meeting areas developed which also seek to deter and prevent vehicle attacks on specific sites. In financial and tourist areas you will often see comfortable seating, suitable for families and friends to sit, talk and socialise. However, in other areas, perhaps near train and bus stations you will find public seating which is more hostile. Perhaps ridged or studded so sitting there for long is uncomfortable, often divided by arm bars to prevent people being able to sprawl or lie across a bench. These intended to discourage rough sleepers or other “undesirables”.
Currently in the UK there is a lot of interest in helping improve our urban environments, a recognition that well designed high streets can provide health gains. The importance of good quality design and street furniture is acknowledged as is the importance of providing shade (London has today enjoyed its hottest April day in 70 years), shelter (it will rain again soon) alongside places to stop and rest. To those with young children, the elderly or living with a disability these are not just a nice addition, they are essentials to daily life. There are also social benefits in terms of tackling isolation and encouraging a sense of community.
Now I don’t deny that in certain locations public seating can become a focus for anti-social behaviour, street drinking and the like. But there are ways of countering this without resorting to either removing them entirely or providing, often at considerable expense uncomfortable, often aggressive looking seating which in itself detracts from the look of an area. Its not as if such measures put a roof over peoples’ heads, reduce violence or tackle problem drinking in a city, they are, rather a sign of hostility toward sections of their own community.
The theme of this year’s City Health conference in Odessa is developing healthy responses in a time of change. While we are not promised any sessions on city benches (although we will be looking at improving accessibility for disabled groups) there is an underpinning principle of making our cities healthier, better places for all groups. Benches and seats in themselves don’t directly address issues about ageing populations, blood borne viruses, obesity or migration they do perhaps provide a visible insight into the attitude of politicians and policy makers towards urban populations.
What you may ask has led to this interest in urban seating? Let me tell you. Lower back pain. The worlds leading cause of activity limitation. Over the last six months I have often found an absolute need to sit down, even lie down in numerous cities due to significant back pain. It’s given me a new perspective on the merits of good city seating, provided some enforced thinking time, and has made me reflect upon just how inhumane and pointless much public seating is. Hopefully come September my back will have improved but I shall be adding the benches of Odessa to my global review.