Seating Priorities

Henry Shaftoe

(A version of this article appeared in Landscape – the Journal of the Landscape Institute, February 2009)

Successful public spaces are places where citizens want to be. One of the best ways to encourage people to tarry in an urban public space is to provide suitable opportunities to sit down. Indeed some recent research I undertook into the preferences of users of public space found that "sitting places" was their second most important requirement (after "space that is welcoming, regardless of age, culture or wealth"). Most public open spaces do contain seating, but far too often it is of the wrong kind in the wrong place. One can't help wondering if such seating has been installed because it fills a gap on the designer's plan; with the choice of seating being chosen for ease of maintenance rather than comfort or potential usage.

In my view, public space designs are too often based on visual aesthetic principles and clever symbolism (eg: using a visual motif to represent the place's history or context), which look good on paper and may appeal to those commissioning the work, but don't necessarily translate into convivial spaces for people to use.


1: A new public space, but who would want to sit there? Note too the use of two CCTV cameras trained on the seating

My observations of the use of public spaces in the UK and abroad have led me to certain conclusions about the best placement and design of sitting opportunities. I have used the latter term ("sitting opportunities") rather than "seating" because I have noted that the most popular places for people to sit are not necessarily benches or seats as such.

There appear to be some basic human preferences for seating, which if we note and address, could lead to much better design of sitting opportunities. Some of these preferences are to do with: protection from the rear, viewing position and alignment or distribution for social interaction.

Watching your back

Generally, people do not like to have their backs vulnerably exposed to strangers. This is probably a basic human survival tactic and can even be observed in restaurants, where tables around the walls are nearly always preferred to tables in the middle of the room, which feel much too exposed.

People prefer to observe, rather than be observed in public space and not knowing what might be going on behind you can be an uncomfortable experience. Yet it is extraordinary how many public seats are located in exposed positions that do not recognise this basic human need:


2: seating with no rear protection, Bristol

Seating with rear protection is more likely to be used and has the advantage that it can often be "built in" and is cause less of an obstruction to circulation.


3: Built-in seating, Bristol

Watching the world go by


4: Antic hospital, Barcelona

As well as for conversational and resting reasons, people sit down in public space to observe others. This is a perennially popular human activity and is best done from a viewpoint that matches or exceeds the standing height of other people. This may also be traceable back to evolutionary survival tactics where it is better not to be in an inferior position when encountering strangers. Therefore the public bench height is unsuitable and I have seen myriad examples of people overcoming this height problem by either sitting on the backs of benches or eschewing them altogether in favour of a higher ledge.


5: Birmingham

It should be possible to design seating to facilitate this higher point-of-view and indeed the simple example below from Western France offers this opportunity as well as providing a built-in table when needed:


6: Ile de Ré, France

Opportunities to interact or not

Sometimes people just want to sit in a safe vantage point or in splendid isolation, but often they are sitting with friends, or people they may wish to communicate with. In the latter cases the seating has to enable group interaction to happen. Putting seats in straight rows is useless for this as it only allows for you to speak to the one person immediately adjacent to you on either side.


7: These young people in Budapest have avoided the straight seating in the background, as it would not have allowed for proper group interaction.

The best type of open-space seating is moveable, as it allows users to create their own temporary social spaces for the many possible types of social interaction.


8: Parade Gardens, Bath

9: Jardins de Luxembourg, Paris

Concerns about theft of seating can be dealt with by having open spaces that can be closed off at night (as in the cases of Bath Promenade Gardens and Paris Jardins de Luxembourg, above) or just by good stewardship. Moveable chairs can be either of the type that are easily packable away (usually deckchairs) or heavy enough that they are not easy to run off with. Moveable seating has been successful in selected public spaces of many large European and American cities including the South Bank of London last summer:


10: Outside the National Theatre, South Bank, London

Distribution

People have a strong sense of personal space – how near it is acceptable to be in relation to others. In general people will seat themselves well away from others already sitting in that space. As the space becomes more crowded the distribution becomes more compressed, but people still attempt to maximise their distance from strangers or use body positioning to separate themselves. This is why moveable seating or general sitting opportunities, such as plinths, wide stairways or grass lawns are so good and adaptable, as they allow for different densities of use without forcing people together in a predetermined way.


11:The Mound, Edinburgh

12: Padua, Italy

Conclusion

This brief resumé of the psychology and sociology of sitting in public has suggested ways we can provide sitting opportunities that people are likely to take advantage of. Obvious conclusions from all this are: that a range of seating places are necessary, with maximum flexibility and that the standard issue steel or timber "bench" is usually not the best provision.

A good way to come up with a suitable range of sitting opportunities would be through a two stage process. Firstly one would provide a provisional layout, with an oversupply of sitting opportunities, to be available for use until a post-occupancy evaluation clarified where people were actually sitting. Then one could remove the unused seating (generally easy to identify visually) and, if necessary, enhance the spaces were people are actually sitting down.

Often the best sitting opportunities arise from designs where the apparent intention was not to provide "seats". Now that we know a bit more about how and where people like to sit, perhaps we can consciously produce these "accidentally on purpose" designs.


13: "Accidental seating", Budapest, Hungary

Henry Shaftoe is an urban designer and senior lecturer in the School of Planning and Architecture at the University of the West of England, Bristol. He is the author of "Convivial Urban Spaces: Creating Effective Public Places", published by Earthscan in 2008

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