Amy Crawford has written for Boston magazine, the Boston Globe, Slate, and Smithsonian. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Cities are removing benches in an effort to counter vagrancy and crime—at the same time that they’re adding them to make the public realm more age-friendly.
Last month, after six months of construction, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority reopened the first of three rehabbed Brooklyn stations. It had new USB charging stations, large-screen digital maps, countdown clocks, and even a new mosaic.
But what really caught straphangers’ attention was the leaning bar. A slanted wooden slab set against the wall at about the height of a person’s rear end, the bar was meant to give passengers a way to take some weight off their feet as they waited for the next train. What it was not, however, was a bench.
“Are they trying to tell us something? Is this even for humans?” asked one incredulous Twitter user. “Is leaning the new sitting?” tweeted another. “With all the walking in NYC you need to sit occasionally.”
The first Cuomo Station opens in Bay Ridge, 53rd St. biggest changes - leaning benches, charging ports, digital screens pic.twitter.com/QMTIXPToM2— Dan Rivoli (@danrivoli) September 8, 2017
leaning benches are a huge scam, i paid taxes for a real bench https://t.co/ckREJksA6M— Anthony V. (@fascinated) September 10, 2017
In an email to CityLab, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz called the leaning bar “the result of a review of best practices in transit systems around the world.” Bars take up less floor space than benches, he wrote, and serve as another option for transit riders. “They didn’t replace traditional seating in the station,” he wrote; “they supplement it.”
Despite the MTA’s protestations, some New Yorkers saw the bar as the latest salvo in what could be called the War on Sitting. As cities around the world tear out benches in an effort to deter homeless people from sleeping and drug dealers from hovering, or to force loiterers to move along, pedestrians and transit users may find fewer and fewer places to sit down and take a load off, or hang out and watch the world go by—and that’s bad news not only for tired feet, but for city life itself.
In the past few years, benches have disappeared from Uptown Chicago bus shelters (city officials cited concerns about loitering) and downtown Cincinnati (because “lewd and lascivious behavior” was allegedly occurring behind them). In San Francisco’s Castro, the local business association pulled seating out of Harvey Milk Plaza. The benches, it said, were being used as a “loophole” by people who wanted to avoid violating the city’s law against lying on sidewalks. In D.C., George Washington University pulled up seating outside a campus 7-Eleven after university police received complaints about panhandling and harassment. “If there are benches there, there are homeless people there,” an officer told the student paper.
Earlier this year, the London Borough of Islington installed new “smart” benches with Wi-Fi, solar panels, and phone charging stations—but soon after the borough council announced it would remove them, due to a lack of planning permission and concerns that the benches presented “an opportunity for thieves travelling past to snatch phones and iPads.”
Anaheim got attention in July because of officials’ decision to remove benches from bus stops near Disneyland, leading some people to assume that the theme park requested homeless people be evicted for the sake of its squeaky-clean image. City spokesman Mike Lyster said that was incorrect—the benches were not pulled out at the theme park’s behest.
“We got into a situation where bus riders were losing access to the benches—people were basically occupying them 24 hours a day,” he said. “This at least restored the shelters for bus riders.”
Lyster noted that the city has an outreach program to connect homeless people with social services that can get them into housing; since 2014, some 800 people have found homes, he said. “But it’s a long game, and the problem grows.” Meanwhile, the bench removals had their intended effect, he said. While people slept on the sidewalk for a while, eventually, they moved on.
No one seems to be keeping statistics on the disappearance of street seating, but G.W. Rolle, who sits on the board at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, places the trend within the greater context of so-called hostile architecture—features such as spikes to prevent people from sitting on ledges and segmented benches that don’t allow them to lie down—and anti-vagrancy laws, which criminalize sleeping in public, sitting on sidewalks, and loitering. The center, which tracks laws that affect homeless people, found in a recent survey of U.S. cities that nearly half have laws barring lying down or sitting in certain places, a number that has climbed more than 50 percent over the past decade.
“A physical object must occupy physical space,” says Rolle, who was himself homeless for several years. “But wherever you sit, you’re vulnerable to vagrancy citations. They don’t want homeless people to have any peace.”
Rolle is now a pastor and advocate for homeless people in St. Petersburg, Florida, a city that was once famous for its distinctive green benches. Today, St. Petersburg has one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the U.S., and those benches have all but disappeared.
“It hasn’t solved homelessness, and the people they put the benches there for still need them,” Rolle says. “It would make the city look better if they put them back. It’s a beautiful city, surrounded on three sides by water, and more people would walk, more people would go downtown, more of the elderly would come out of their buildings, if they had somewhere to sit.”
Rolle’s observations are consistent with findings of the New York-based nonprofit Project for Public Spaces. “Removing benches also removes some of the positive activity,” says Ethan Kent, the group’s senior vice president. “It sends a message of fear: This is a place to move through quickly. People disengage. … The most effective way to deal with ‘undesirable’ activity is to make the place friendlier for everyone else. So the bench becomes the battle line, the turning point for cities either welcoming people or designing out of fear.”
While many communities are taking away benches for fear of illegal or undesirable behavior, something else suggests keeping or even adding more of them: our country’s (and the world’s) aging population. In 2007, the World Health Organization published a guide to “Global Age-friendly Cities,” which noted, “The availability of seating areas is generally viewed as a necessary urban feature for older people.” Some older people surveyed for the guide expressed concern about “antisocial” elements occupying public benches. To mitigate that, the WHO recommended that outdoor seating be abundant, well-maintained, and regularly spaced.
Today, more than 500 communities worldwide are working, to various extents, on meeting the WHO’s guidelines. Surprisingly enough, the home of the infamous leaning bench—New York—has been among the most ambitious.
Ruth Finkelstein was the original director of the Age-Friendly NYC Commission, which launched in 2007. (She is now an assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.) To begin with, Finkelstein says, her group held town-hall-style meetings with thousands of older people in each borough, listening to their concerns about everything from sidewalk maintenance to gaps in the city’s healthcare system.
“Benches came up a lot,” Finkelstein says, “both people talking about the fact that it made it difficult to do their errands if they didn’t have a place to sit, and also people just saying they want to sit out in their neighborhood and watch the world go by.”
Some of the older citizens’ desires were beyond the means of the initiative, but it seemed simple enough to add more benches—especially with money from the federal government’s 2009 stimulus package available. So Finkelstein’s group worked with the city’s Department of Transportation (a separate entity from the MTA) to put benches at bus stops and at other locations with higher concentrations of older people. Then they came up with a simple form that let anyone request a bench. To date, DOT has installed 1,500 benches, with another 600 planned by 2019.
“They just started popping up all over the place,” Finkelstein says. “People love them. People use them. And there’s nothing about them that makes them only for old people. It’s an important way of creating a town square. Old people sit on them, young people sit on them, and sometimes old people and young people sit on them together and—God forbid—talk to each other.”
New York is not the only city that, in recent years, has both given benches and taken them away. Wichita, Kansas, recently floated a plan to remove seating from one downtown park in an effort to drive out homeless people. But as part of its own age-friendly initiative, the city also built a new “Grandparents Park” with plenty of seating to accommodate older people. Boston claimed that removing benches near one of its main train stations had reduced drug activity, but elsewhere, City Hall is proudly rolling out MIT-designed smart benches with phone-charging stations.
Local governments evidently remain conflicted. But the grumbling that ensues when benches are taken away—and the positive press when new ones are installed—suggest a stalemate in the War on Sitting, for now.