Seat-able Spaces

It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”                                           – William H. Whyte

Since the inception of civilizations, public or shared spaces have always held importance. Right from ‘The Great Bath’ of Indus Valley to ‘Times Square’ in New York, human settlements have highly valued congregational spaces. A place to celebrate festivals, to meet people, to protest or to just loiter around, public spaces form the heart of any urban fabric. A look at these spaces during any time of the day can represent the quality of life in that city. The magic created when people are bustling in a busy street or market area with food being served, children running around, people talking, having coffee is an everyday celebration of human spirit.

However, not all public spaces are utilized equally. There are numerous examples around the world which are nothing but open, empty paved areas used just for circulation. Researches have been conducted just to understand how such a space which caters to a huge variety of people fails to attract them. With factors such as climate, scale, openness, amenities, vegetation etc. coming into picture, it is very difficult to analyze the complex nature of these city areas. Some spaces work wonderfully in spite of being small in size while some are not used even though brightly lit with sun during freezing winter months. Often the blame is on the space being not open enough, or not having enough amenities around to hold back the users. However, a factor which is most often overlooked is the “seat-able” area in these public spaces.

PublicSpace
Plazas used for thoroughfare. Image : Fernando Barreiro Cavestany

There is a worldwide deficit of seating areas in public spaces.

Wide open avenues with scattered plantation, couple of shops serving sandwiches with a fountain in between and close proximity to the metro station, does not guarantee its usage. People need a reason to stay. Public spaces need seating to let them stay. ‘Seating is an explicit invitation to stay. Either with others or by oneself’. (1) It is a very basic need of any passerby during anytime of the day. People sit down to take rest, to have lunch, to converse, to see around or to tie shoelaces. It’s what everyone expects from a public space, be it a park or a pedestrian street. If a city encourages its people to walk, it needs to give them a place to sit down and be a part of everyday theatrics of a public space. Moreover, as seating invites people to stay, people invite other people to stay.

Seating generates an opportunity for users to look around. According to some studies, all people need is to be around other people. They may or may not interact directly with them. It just comforts them to sit and be a part of a thriving city area. An interesting study done by American journalist and public-watcher William H. Whyte looked at all the aspects individually which constitute a public plaza to understand what makes them work. He wanted to study reasons that make people stay in some public areas while ignoring others in the city of New York. Surprisingly, his conclusion was quite simple. ‘People tend to sit down where there are places to sit down.’ (2)

The issue here is not just limited to public plazas and streets. Even public buildings such as metro stations, airports, museums etc. have either insufficient seating or they are not properly designed. Most of them have chairs fixed to the ground and arranged linearly. Fixing them to a particular arrangement is not ideal for sitting and generates socially awkward situations. Chairs, on the other hand, work very well in areas such as cafes and restaurants. Benches and are most widely used in parks and plazas. These too are typical old fashioned ones which force people to sit upright. So the question is what elements and furniture to use so that people are comfortable in all aspects.

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Finding comfort zones within extended seating areas. Image : Stephen Miller

What was striking in various research conclusions was that users are not dependent on furniture to sit. Any horizontal accessible surface, separated from the main circulation area, was used by people to sit in the absence of proper seating. In some cases, people often sit on the footpath during evening hours and relax as the city passes by. While in parks, lawns are used as a surface to sit on rather than benches just because its provides users with more flexibility to change postures. What matters to them is not only physical comfort, but social comfort as well. They like to occupy a place where they can sit around in a group and talk or a secluded corner to sit in solitude. Steps are another example of a fantastic urban response by any building to a public area. These series of steps, though not made for seating, are inviting enough for people to accommodate themselves wherever they like. The height and width may not be suitable for sitting, nonetheless people are comfortable using them to rest for a while.

Not just public plazas, even streets need elements on the sides for people to sit, just to show that the city cares about the pedestrians. Traditional houses of Gujarat have catered to this need to an extent. ‘Otla’ is an architectural element that bridges the gap between public streets and private houses. It is a simple extension of horizontal plane into the street in the form of plinth. Though very small in size, these are the most used spaces of any household. During evening hours until late night, residents sit on these ‘otla’ to recreate and engage with the external world. Accompanied by narrow street sections, neighbors interact with each other, sitting on their plinths while children play around. During hot summer months, people passing by use these external elements to rest for a while in the shade. It creates a fantastic response to generate a buffer area which is used both by the residents and the city.

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External seating areas known ‘Otla‘.  Source : http://www.architectureindevelopment.org

A case worth mentioning here is that of Race Course in Rajkot, India. The area is not actually a racing course but a huge circular patch of land in the center of city area zoned for public activities such as expos and fairs. However, what is interesting is that along with fencing to prevent encroachment, plinths are provided on the outer periphery of the whole area. With such a small gesture, citizens started occupying these areas after work hours to just sit and relax. Eventually the whole area was filling with people in evening and it became a task to search for an empty plinth to sit on. Today, just with that small gesture of extending a plinth to the street, a new public space has been generated for the city. Such is the power of allowing people to sit in public. It may not only revive dead spaces but can generate new areas for people to hang out.

While one thing is certain, there is a deficiency of quality seating areas in urban spaces and it does not have single universal solution to it. The surrounding context, mentality of people, weather conditions etc. need to studied before designing public spaces. Fixed plinths or articulated benches are not the answers. Plazas need to be more people friendly. A variety of carefully designed seating spaces need to be provided so that people can accommodate various range of functions they like or need to do while in public. They like to have options of choosing where to sit and how to sit. If furniture is used as a solution, it at least needs to be movable so that it does not generate socially awkward situations. Buildings opening into the public area need to have appropriate responses so that they invite the people on the street. Houses opening into the streets should interact better by extending plinths and porches into the streets. People need to come out on streets and stay there for a while and be a part of everyday city life.

The struggle to generate usable public spaces is real. These interventions are so complex that deriving a formula will not make it right. However, there are some things designers can do to ensure minimum usability. One such thing is providing appropriate seating areas wherever required. This simple solution which is often not considered so important, has tremendous potential of not only inviting people outside, but it makes them stay there. The unit of measuring success of any public space is the number of people occupying it during given time. More the seating area, more the number of people staying there for a longer period of time. With people roaming around and chattering, expressing themselves in public spaces, a city looks happy. Happy people constitute happy cities, and as William Shakespeare once said ‘What is the city but the people’. (3)

 

Bibliography

  1. “Seating and sitting in the V&A: An observational study …” N.p., n.d. Web. 12 June 2017.
  2. Whyte, William Hollingsworth.The social life of small urban spaces. New York: Project for Public Spaces, 2014. Print.
  3. ‘Coriolanus’ a tragedy William Shakespeare.
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