Monday, December 28, 2015

The Humble Bench Fills a Crucial Urban Role

London bench
A few years ago, I had a free afternoon in London and no desire to visit another museum or to attend another play.  So I took the Tube to the neighborhoods south of the Thames, across from the Palace of Westminster.

It was a fine and sunny afternoon with spring about to pop.  I enjoyed ambling about, observing how Londoners lived, with a glorious mixed-use mashup of housing types and retail storefronts available for my perusal.

Eventually my feet wearied and a break beckoned.  I found a bench that allowed me to peak around the corner of Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to look through leafless trees toward Big Ben. 

My feet soon recovered, but I remained rooted to the bench, reading a few pages in a book I’d been carrying.  There was something too pleasant about the spot, and about the chance to casually observe Londoners going about their days, to abandon the bench too hastily.

Thinking back on that pleasant afternoon interval is a reminder that urbanism isn’t solely about domiciling and consuming in walkable urban settings.  It’s also about living in those settings, including quietly spending a few contented minutes in the sunshine, at peace with the world.

Benches are a crucial element of urbanism.

The necessity of benches explains why so many Petalumans were upset when numerous downtown benches recently disappeared, a situation that was never adequately resolved.

And it explains the success that Gracen Johnson found when she “chairbombed” a grassy sward near a marketplace in her town of Fredericton, New Brunswick, clandestinely installing decorated stumps to serve as seating for the customers of the marketplace.  The shoppers quickly made use of the chairs, although the property owner eventually requested their removal.

(Note: I met and chatted with Johnson at CNU 21, the 2013 annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  We spoke while awaiting our orders from a food truck in a parking lot across from the Salt Lake City conference hotel.  She struck me as a passionate and informed urbanist.  Since then, she has made several insightful efforts in the field of urban sitting.  She’ll appear again in this space.)

Nor must walkable urban seating be limited to settings near retail.  There is also a role for benches in walkable residential neighborhoods, perhaps providing resting places for those lugging bags back from shopping, for those awaiting a bus, or for those wishing to exchange neighborhood news.

Early in the history of this blog, I wrote about a Petaluman who dreamed of installing a bench in his frontyard and about a Canadian who had done so to great success.

The post alerted me to the potential role of benches built by homeowners for the enjoyment of their neighbors.  These benches have much in parallel with parklets.

Although merchants hope to sell more sandwiches or ice cream when they install a parklet, they’re also offering a community benefit by providing a place for neighbors to meet and to talk, even those who don’t buy anything.

Oak Street bench
On a smaller scale, and minus the mercantile element, homeowners are doing the same when they create benches for their neighbors to use.

With the element of goodwill in mind, I smile whenever I see a bench in a Petaluma neighborhood.  There’s one on Oak Street, so artfully integrated into the landscaping of the home that drivers may pass by without seeing it, but it’s nonetheless fully evident to walkers.

And there’s another on Sunnyslope Road, built to provide solace to a couple who lost two adult children in a single year.

Sunnyslope Road bench
(There are undoubtedly others in Petaluma and the North Bay.  If you have locations, please share.)

I rarely pass by either the Oak Street or Sunnyslope Road benches, so even more rarely see either being used, but even when empty they send a message of benevolence to their neighbors and that’s a good thing.

Benches may be humble but they fill a role, whether providing a respite to vacationers in London, allowing shoppers to rest in North Bay downtowns, or sending messages of goodwill in walkable neighborhoods.  May we all be as humble and useful.

In my next post, I’ll write about a series of meetings scheduled for the North Bay during the third week of January.  All urbanists, and those with a curiosity about urbanist thinking, should plan on attending at least one.  Details are still evolving, but I’ll share everything I know when I next write.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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