Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Design firm Street Plans Collaborative has started tracking informal street furniture, and you can help.
When I came back to New York in 1999 after an absence of several years, I pulled up in a moving van in front of my new apartment building in Astoria, Queens, and was immediately greeted by one of the things I had missed most about my hometown.
In front of the modest four-story walkup were a couple of old guys sitting on a couple of old chairs, watching the world go by. My fiancée and I introduced ourselves, and as we started moving our stuff into the building, we could see the men sizing up our potential as neighbors. They seemed pleased, for the most part, and a productive acquaintance was begun, one that, as it turned out, paid off for everyone a few months later when one of these same gentlemen had a small fire in his apartment. We were lucky enough to be help him get out safely and at the same time help to make sure the whole place didn’t go up in flames.
Those chairs that the men were sitting in stayed on the sidewalk all the time, even overnight. They would migrate up and down the block and could be found in front of different businesses at different times of day, as the need arose. Sometimes one would break, but it would quickly be replaced by another. The seating was part of the neighborhood ecosystem, respected and valued by all. In a city where life is lived on the sidewalk, where you’re always walking, sometimes you gotta have a place to sit.
Street Seats, a new project from urban planning and design firm Street Plans Collaborative, pays tribute to the importance of such humble streetside accommodation by crowdsourcing and mapping places to sit around the city – the countless benches, chairs, and stools that are just part of the culture here. “A couple of months after I moved to New York, I started to notice it,” says Mike Lydon, a principal at Street Plans. “The neighborhoods were full of these little benches and perches.”
Lydon began taking pictures of the seating he saw – most of which is, I should note, of the more official street furniture variety than the mobile chairs I remember so fondly from Astoria. Once he had collected enough images, with the help of an intern, he and his colleagues put them online, both as a photo gallery and as a clickable map that lets you view seats in any given neighborhood. Now the site is open for submissions from the public, which are coming in already.
A lot of the seats on the map are benches put out by businesses, or built around tree pits by neighborhood residents. One of the most elaborate is a sculptural design surrounding a tree in Long Island City, Queens. It’s outside a coffee shop, but it was commissioned by a person who lives across the street, who paid an architect to design and build it. Others are much more simple, and most of the time it isn’t even clear who built them. But someone obviously thought it was worth putting in the work.
Lydon says that although he has traveled around the world observing how people use the streetscape for his job, he has never seen as much DIY street seating anywhere else as he has in New York. “It’s unique in my travels,” he says. “In other cities, you see benches here and there, but you don’t see anything on this scale, or as normative as it is here.”
The Street Seats site is designed both to document this phenomenon and to serve as inspiration to other places. Lydon says he is always moved when he sees the effort and expense put forward by small businesses and individuals to give passers-by a place to sit and enjoy the world going by. “You see it everywhere,” he says. “It’s like a gift to the street.”
All images courtesy Street Seats