Public seating anywhere is rare — whether you are in a city or small town, at a bus stop or an intersection.

In most cities, the places where we most often cross paths are rarely where we connect. Think about it — an intersection is not often a pleasant spot to stop and catch up, for example. That's because they're designed to maximize throughput and mobility, rather than conversation. They also become temporary parking spaces. A bench would change that.

But, in an era where social isolation underlies so many of our society's challenges, creating places that invite lingering and encourage interaction at the street level will be crucial. This will mean rethinking our streets as places that draw us outside while enabling us to connect, socialize and be part of a community.

What if we told you that this transformation of our streets can be kick-started with something as simple as public seating?

Placing a public bench/seat on a corner establishes a basic, unequivocal statement that the street belongs to the surrounding community — it transcends its role as a through-way and becomes something to enjoy. This stands in direct contrast to the norm, in which street corners are too often designed as places bare of anything that might invite someone to stick around. Unfortunately, this is often the result of transportation agencies' priorities of improving traffic flow and getting rid of any "obstacle" that gets in the way. In this view, a well-loved bench might even be seen as an impediment and need to be removed.

Who Owns the Intersection Defines the Social Life of Neighborhoods
You can tell a great city by its corners. If the intersection is owned by the vehicles, it is a city for cars and traffic. If the community controls the intersections/corners, it is a city of neighborhoods.

While most intersections ask us to keep moving, a simple bench invites us to connect more with that place and anyone in it. So, why not start with a big goal: to get a bench on every corner?

If we can get a bench on every corner, we can shape our communities around safe, social places to gather. By starting with a seat, we could set off a much bigger transformation that would shape neighborhoods and entire communities.

But what really got us interested in this possibility happened in two places in our Brooklyn neighborhood both just two blocks of our home.

A Bench-led Boost

If you have read any of our other articles, you will know just how crucial we think seating is in creating a welcoming space. Any old chair or bench won't do; public seating must be ample, comfortable, and accessible.

As of now, there are far too few examples of public seating on corners that we have seen in our travels. Making sure that we have enough places to sit conveys a powerful message of welcome, of comfort, and of basic respect for the people who spend time in a place, and we can think of a few places that get it right:

Our Brooklyn Neighborhoods: Three Examples

The Rogue Public Bench

This bench in our Brooklyn neighborhood's main street quickly became a major gathering place when it was first introduced and piqued our curiosity. We were stunned as we witnessed the impact such a simple bench had on a corner we went through at least once a day.

This had us wondering: How did it get there?

The folks who installed it did not go through an approval process, and it was technically illegal. But people have realized that when these benches are called "tree guards" with seating, they have been allowed — and now they are emerging around the neighborhood!

This tree guard "innovation" has become a unique way to add more public seating and enhance social life in many other neighborhoods. It often complements other benches on the opposite side of the sidewalk, creating two opportunities to sit where once there might only have been one.

But then we lost the bench, and along with it the nearby storefront and other seating. The two benches that were in front of the building were also removed and replaced by planters...a strategy more represented in suburban communities, communicating a message of "look but don't touch."

We are not sure why the bench was removed, but the end result is a significant loss.

Public Seating at  the Farmacy and MozzLab

Two blocks from where we live on Henry Street is another exceptional example. There are three blocks that are a center of old Italian life in our community. In fact, those of you who remember the movie, Moonstruck was shot in the building where MozzLab is now located. That intersection has public seating on three corners.  It is a remarkable setting for people to come together, and it is available 24/7. And you don't have buy anything. There is no table service.

On one corner there is a soda fountain called the Farmacy that draws mostly children and a young crowd.

Across the street, a relative newcomer, MozzLab, has created another public gathering place... competing to make this one of the most social intersections around. Both corners provide seating that is available for anyone, day and night, open or not. Both provide food, but they are not cafes, and have no table service.

Public Seating at a Bus Stop on Court Street

This bench was the only seating at a bus stop in our neighborhood.  

Eventually, this bench was removed and new seating was added next to the handicapped ramp in front of what became a very popular neighborhood restaurant. This new bench is not on the curb, but now serves both for bus waiting and just sitting.

It has become a third example in our neighborhood of a corner that integrates public and private seating smoothly, bringing passers-by and travelers into the same social space.

Emerging Social Hubs in Brooklyn: Building Back Better
A social hub is by nature community led. It is local, even hyper-local. It can ripple out from a single enterprise on a block, spread to others, and evolve organically

Barcelona

Barcelona's corner seating, designed by Catalán architect, Antoni Gaudí, has become a recognizable emblem and key symbol of Barcelona. Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia takes the grand prize for multiple canted corners combined with seating, which create unique gathering plazas.

Barcelona is one of our favorite cities. For more of our thinking check out our collection of posts on the wonderful city.

Barcelona - Social Life Project
Barcelona is so deep in remarkable and distinct places and its reputation is so immense, it is important to call them out. What can we all learn from Barcelona about how to create these places in other cities?

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires also has a few corners with public seating, but many more have canted corners where there's much more space for gathering.  In those, the exposure for individual stores/restaurants at the corners is significantly enhanced.

This one in San Telmo is a favorite for men hanging out. The stone slab and bollard create a focal point where people sit and conversations start.

Paris

Paris is one of the best cities we know when it comes to creating café corners — but could use some help with public seating at the corners. The only one we could find is the corner below. One exception is located where the historic Pont Neuf Bridge intersects with the Left Bank along the Seine. Few corners have this large amount of space.

Amsterdam's Corner Public Gathering Place

These two places are across from the Keizersgracht canal from each other. Both are famous gathering spaces with layers of people perched, standing, leaning or just slowly walking through each space.

Our long time friend who has been stirring things up in Amsterdam, Peter Groenendaal @placemakingplus.org, told us, "it's a sidewalk terrace that the café pays a tax for per m2 to the City. Always allowing a pedestrian passage way of around 1.5 meters wide."
During covid more square meters were allowed. Just now the city is trying to roll back those allowances. A large nummer of café and restaurant owners are now sueing the city. They claim they are still trying to catch up for the two years of unfair shutdowns with incredible losses as a result.

Amsterdam, a city of corner cafés and book stores, has a few corners where the seating is public. In this one, small coffee shop and beer parlor anchor the corners.

United States

Belfast, Maine and Los Altos, California have good examples of corner seating. Both of these communities are successful at evolving from the traditional car-centric community into one where people and social life thrive. Over time they have reduced automobile parking and even how much people drive within the downtown.

Belfast, Main Street

Belfast is that rare combination of quiet small town with an active social and cultural life that is attractive to residents and visitors alike. It has a history defined by being on the water, but it also a museum of historic buildings.

Los Altos, California

Some of the corners create small, almost plaza-like spaces, similar to what we found in more historic communities.

A Corner Bench can Shift the Car Culture

Changing the emphasis from the car culture we have embraced for the last 75 plus years to where communities and their social life and community cohesiveness are the priority is a game changer. We have been diving deeper into the basic ideas that support and restore social life in communities. Doing and achieving that flies in the face of the transportation and mobility mafia that controls land use and development in most communities.

Takeaways

In communities where corners are gathering points, the neighborhood is safer for everyone, because people in cars realize they are guests on the street, and act accordingly. Families are more secure about their children being out alone or with friends...there are many eyes on the streets. The phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child" is a reality, not just a wish.

So if we make street corners more comfortable, starting with something like a bench, we can make our streets safer, more sociable, and more inviting places. Chance encounters and long conversations can become the norm.

It doesn't always take a big investment — improvisation is a key way of sharing and showing off new ideas for public seating. It is infectious. When one resident or business does it, others follow suit, trying to do it better. It builds both relationships and creative places that benefit everyone.


Please Just a Nice Place to Sit
A well-designed seat placed in the right location sets the stage for lively activity along a sidewalk, in a park, or on a waterfront.
Have a Seat? How Seating Shapes Welcoming Cities
Benches and seating are not objects; they are mirrors to our social behavior. We have seen it time and again, that where there is seating, there is life.

Mexico City - Fundacion Placemaking

Our partner in Mexico City, Fundacion Placemaking Mexico added a bench at the corner in front of our long time friend, Cecilia Martinez's house in Mexico City. Guillermo Bernal, Cecilia Martinez, Ethan, and Aley Kent are out sitting on the corner.


The Foundation and Future of the Placemaking Movement

Build Back Better, Together: 11 Transformative Agendas to Restore Social Life in Your Community
These transformative agendas can be a foundation for the future and a roadmap for communities to improve the “places” and after COVID, Build Back Better that can help us with ideas to shape our communities for the future.
Next Steps for the Global Placemaking Movement
Imagine if the places where we live were shaped for, and from, our social lives, re-imagined to make it easy for us to gather, shop, have fun, eat together, and be around people different from us. we would collectively have an impact on the health of our planet.
The mission of the Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection in public spaces around the globe. Through our online publication, presentations, campaigns, and catalytic projects, we can create transformative impact on communities everywhere. Our work grows out of more than 50 years devoted to building the global placemaking movement. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of leaders who together accelerate placemaking as a way to create healthy, inclusive, and beloved communities.

If you are interested in collaborating (articles, presentations, exhibits, projects, and more) or supporting the cause contact us.

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