Gracen Johnson / Via YouTube

An urban strategist shares the secrets of making a good public seat.

Making a decent place for people to sit shouldn’t be very hard. As the great observer of urban street life, William H. Whyte, once said: “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”

Why do cities get it wrong so much? Why are so many otherwise lovely public places barren of a decent bench? And why are so many benches plopped down in places where no actual human would want to linger?

Gracen Johnson, a young urban strategist and communications professional, has been thinking about these things a lot. Not only thinking, also doing.

Johnson and some friends recently decided to “chairbomb” a grassy vacant lot near a farmer’s market in the small city of Fredericton, New Brunswick, where she lives. They saw a need: people shopping at the market had no comfortable place to sit and eat. They filled that need for next to no money, using a few stumps they got from a local tree-removal company, some stencils, and some spray paint.

It worked. The day after they put the seats in place, people were happily using them. Johnson wrote about the chairbombing and posted a video at the Strong Towns blog, where she has been chronicling her love affair with the small city of Fredericton.

We asked her a few questions about why it is that finding a place to sit down can be so hard in the modern city, and whether you should try chairbombing at home.

When you did your chairbombing, were you worried at all about the police confronting you? The landowner?

In this case, not really, because of the context of the property and our city. I can easily remove the logs if there is a problem at any point, but it's clear that whoever owns this land (I'd guess the neighboring church or government building) is not interested in kicking people off of it. We also went out of our way to create seating that market-goers and the landowner would love so that they could form their own connection to it. In this city, people seem to respond really well to "art" that's a gift to others.

Do you think similar chairbombing projects could work well in cities and towns of any size?

Everyone appreciates a good place to sit, so I think the options for chairbombing are endless. The cool part is seeing people adapt to their own context. It's the limitations you're working with that make chairbombing interesting. I learned about chairbombing from photos of pallet chairs in other cities. We didn't have enough time or resources to build 20 pallet chairs, so my friends and I found an alternative for our situation. Other people will do the same for their neighborhoods. They are the experts.

How have you developed your ability to look at a place and take stock of how friendly it is to human beings?

I think everyone does this naturally, right down to the side of the street we choose to walk on. We all kind of get what makes a place feel human and lived-in. The big lesson I've learned through time, travel, and comparison is that people-friendliness comes down to a place feeling comfortable, not necessarily beautiful. So I just make a habit of asking, "Is this place comfortable?" Often you don't need to ask because the absence or presence of people will already tell you.

Also, experiencing a city from the extremes helps. I learn a lot by observing and listening to parents of young children, or seniors with mobility challenges. Navigating a city in a foreign language or even spending a day in bad shoes can help you see the city in new eyes. When you find spaces that are comfortable for people that are so often stressed or uncomfortable in the city, you get an idea of what works well universally.

Do you find that other people have trouble doing this?

Intuitively, no. People get this stuff, which is why they pick the vacation destinations they do and why they choose a particular spot to eat lunch. I don't know why we end up building such unsatisfactory places instead, but I imagine it comes down to people following a checklist rather than their brain. I'm working on a video about this right now—about confusing the tool (a bench) with the outcome (quality public space).

Why do you think that architects and designers so often put seating in terrible places and fail to create places where people want to sit?

My sense is that architects and designers are not actually responsible for most of this stuff. Again, I think it becomes a checklist item. I wouldn't be surprised if everyone involved in the production of the most egregious examples of “Places I Don't Want to Sit” knows they are a bad idea, but they build it to check the box.

We do have local examples of places where designers were involved and did a poor job (by evidence of the space being underused). In those cases, I sense the age-old form-over-function problem—a desire to create something pretty that is either not practical or comfortable for the people who use it.

But most of all we end up building places where people don't want to sit because they're attached to places where there are no people walking around. It's all about the context. On the bright side, we could create hundreds of amazing spaces tomorrow just by taking a fraction of that wasted money and investing it in places where people have already demonstrated they want to be—in places where it will make a difference. That was the point of this whole thing.

Update (Sep 16): Gracen Johnson writes at Strong Towns that the owner of the property where she and her friends put the stump seats asked to have them removed. She and the owner had a “good” conversation, and she promptly took the stumps away, as requested. Johnson could be disappointed but instead has a positive take on the whole experience:

It’s hard to feel bad about that. We had three great weeks, made the point that more seating would be appreciated, showed how easy that could be, and emerged without hard feelings or wasting the time of city officials. ...

Even (maybe especially) when there are conflicting ideas around public space, it creates opportunities to connect with other people.

Johnson is actively looking for another place to put her impromptu seats.

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