Author: Radhika Bynon
The report entitled The Bench Project finds that benches in our towns and cities, though easily overlooked, play a crucial role in social life. The publication argues that benches are currently being removed from public spaces; damaging community life and social integration.
Benches provide a free place for different individuals or large groups to meet, a space for people to pause and feel a sense of belonging, and also serve as a necessary resting place for older people.
However, increasingly associated with attracting ‘antisocial behaviour’, benches have begun to be removed from towns and cities, or made deliberately uncomfortable to dissuade people from using them as meeting places.
The report (The Bench Project) argues that a lack of benches will disproportionately impact groups for whom other social spaces, such as coffee shops, are not available due to their cost or social codes. Instead of removing benches, people should be encouraged to use them through good planning, design and management of spaces.
The focus of ‘The Bench Project’ is on locations where people often ‘hang out’, the act of everyday sitting on a bench or low wall, near a takeaway, a park entrance or in an urban square. The research has explored the stories, memories and activities of people using these places and questions how they provide places for social interaction. We were keen to find out how different aspects of people’s identity (age, ethnicity, gender, life situation) shape how people see and are seen when they sit outside.
Though the bench is often seen as a delightful, sometimes even romantic place, the research also investigated aspects of confrontation and control. In particular, we note a context of increasing concern about gathering in public places (such as use of dispersal orders) and how places are often made cleaner but also more boring. This impacts on design: making sitting uncomfortable, or removing of benches, with the aim of deterring longer-stay use of the public realm.
The research sits within the Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities programme. It is conducted in two different London neighbourhoods, Woolwich and Sutton, working with community organisations in each place.
The findings show that policies and actions that respond to certain groups of public space users as problematic (for example, young people, drinkers) is at odds with understandings of mental, physical and social wellbeing, which often show many benefits to being outdoors and spending time with friends. We found a general openness to diverse ways of being outside, and that siting on benches enables a flexible and undemanding way to enjoy public life.
We have summarised our findings in the Manifesto of the Good Bench.
We have produced a report “Benches for Everyone. Solitude in public, sociability for free’ , which includes findings supporting the development of the Manifesto, and ‘Making Benches Better: Points for Action’. (see report below). Policy impacts include influencing agendas regarding public health, social experiences of living in city neighbourhoods, combating loneliness and isolation, design of public spaces, community safety and policing, supporting participation of elderly and young residents, and addressing hate crime and harassment. Download the report from The Young Foundation website.
An integral part of the process of the research has been the making of a 18 minute film by documentary filmmaker Esther Johnson: ‘Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches’ which gave bench users the chance to share their stories of using benches and captures the rhythm of daily life in these two locations.
The Bench Project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (ARC). The Arts and Humanities Research funds research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The Bench Project was part of ‘Connected Communities programme’, an AHRC led programme designed to understand the changing nature of communities in their historical and cultural contexts and the role of communities in sustaining and enhancing quality of life. For further information on the AHRC, please go to: www.ahrc.ac.uk