The lack of seating in cities and the response by New York City

The New Yorker draws attention to the lack of seating in many urban settings and how New York City has responded:

A dimension that is truly important is the human backside. It is a dimension many architects ignore,” the urban sociologist William H. Whyte once observed. Planners and designers of urban space have often stinted on seating, leaving the rest of us to colonize ledges, lean against planters, perch on fire hydrants, set up camp chairs, and fold coats to dull the pain from pointy iron rails. Lately, though, New York has begun to recognize the needs of the temporarily sedentary. This is quietly becoming an excellent city for sitting…

In the latest initiative, the Department of Transportation has rolled out a new program of sidewalk seating by request. New Yorkers can go to the DOT website and suggest a location for a sleek, sculptural CityBench designed by Ignacio Ciocchini (who also authored the garbage cans and shop kiosks at Bryant Park). Each of the three side-by-side berths is made from a sheet of perforated steel, folded into a back and a seat, and separated from its neighbor by a low armrest. The benches look tough, cool, and modern, but the effect of installing 1,000 of them on sidewalks in all five boroughs will be to make the city a more relaxed, inviting place.

Some will no doubt resent the new proliferation of benches and chairs as yet another encumbrance. New Yorkers would prefer the rest of the world to think that we move at a constant lope, defying cars in intersections, and pushing past slow-moving tourists. The truth is, though, that some of us are also old or infirm or have only just learned to walk. It’s precisely because we spend so much time on our feet that we find ourselves sometimes schlepping groceries, dragging reluctant kids, nursing bum knees, and suffering in high heels. The old solution was to segregate weary shufflers in parks, leaving the asphalt to the hurried. But Whyte noted that in crowded public plazas, people don’t choose to sit out of the way of foot traffic, but rather plop down amid pedestrians who happily weave around them. The reason is that sitting down is a social act. Public seating is a crucial element of a vibrant metropolis, which is why the Department of Transportation is also now functioning as the Department of Staying Right Here.

Interesting. Compared to the sedentary suburban lifestyle which consists of a lot of sitting within houses and workplaces as well as numerous short car trips, the city life is much more on one’s feet.

Two thoughts about this:

1. This short piece doesn’t say much about how we got into this position. I suspect one reason is homelessness. Seats are places wheres the homeless can spend a lot of time during the day and sleep on at night. With the increasing criminalization of homelessness in many cities, either seats have been removed or they have been altered to not allow laying down. Cities may want seating but they want it for certain types of people to sit there.

2. I wonder if many cities haven’t provided as much seating to save money or to limit having to deal with problems (like homelessness) by simply leaving seating to private spaces. Of course, the problem with this is that most businesses would have you pay in order to have a seat. If public spaces are only for walking, standing, and milling around, they are less attractive and the wealthier can retreat to private settings to find seats.

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