Excerpted from Public Space Amenities: A Guide to their Design and Management in Downtowns, Neighborhood Commercial Districts, and Parks, published by Project for Public Spaces.
A well-designed bench in the right location can be a real hub of activity along a sidewalk. Even though the primary purpose of a bench should be the convenience and comfort of the person using it, many benches are not used because they are cold, hard, uncomfortable, or located in the wrong place.
Unfortunately, in many cities, benches are also the source of problems. For example, benches located in isolated areas sometimes are subject to vandalism or are used as places to sleep. These problems usually occur because one or more of the following mistakes are made. One mistake is thinking that more is better. All too often, many more benches are purchased than are actually needed. Another mistake is that benches are often placed at regular intervals along a street rather than in relation to how they will be used, or without considering how the bench will function in relation to adjacent land uses and other amenities along the street. To avoid making these common mistakes some important initial questions must be asked.
- Are more benches needed?
- Where should they be located?
- What is the right type of bench?
- How will they be maintained once they have been installed?
The most important decision that needs to be made in selecting a bench, or any other type of public space amenity, is whether it is needed and whether it will be used. This requires visiting the area and noting the types of seating that already exist; the types of land uses (e.g., shops, offices, residences) that are along the street; and the potential clientele (e.g., office workers, shoppers) in the area who would be likely to use the benches. Locations where people already sit (on steps, ledges, etc.) should also be noted. This type of on-site observation is important in making decisions about where, how many, and what types of benches are needed.
Locations for benches are places where there are people – places where people wait for rides, taxis or buses; outside department stores and office building entrances; near food shops; and anywhere that people can watch other people. Bad locations are places where there is little activity, such in front of banks that close early, buildings without windows, places that are hidden from view or located too far from activity. Once a decision has been made about the general location, the following guidelines can be used in positioning benches along a street:
- Benches should be placed within view of the action, but out of the way of the flow of pedestrian traffic. They should be set back at least 24 inches from the pedestrian walkway to allow space for people walking by. (However, a bench should not be set back too far, or it will not be used.)
- Benches should be placed together with other street amenities such as bus shelters, kiosks, newsstands, waste receptacles, telephones, etc.
- Benches should not face each other directly unless they are being used for games. People tend to feel uncomfortable when they sit face to face with a stranger, and will twist around or sit sideways to avoid eye contact. Occasionally, pairs of benches should be placed at a 90 to 120 degree angle, which is good both for conversations and for sitting alone.
- Benches should generally not be lined up in a row because this makes it difficult for a group to have a conversation. (Where there are many passersby or where there is an outstanding view, benches can be lined up.)
- Benches should be located so as to give people a choice to sit in the sun or shade, and where there is protection from strong winds. The widest range of choice is provided by using movable chairs or lightweight benches.
- In areas where disabled people are likely to sit, benches should be spaced so that wheelchairs can be accommodated on the side or in front of the bench. This will allow people in the wheelchairs to talk with people on the bench, without being in the way of passersby. People who use walkers also need space to rest their walker adjacent to the bench while they are seated.
Comfort is an important factor in designing a bench. But how comfortable a bench needs to be depends on how it will be used. For example, on a shopping street where people will stop briefly with packages, comfort is not as important as in a park where people may spend an entire afternoon. Concern for comfort must be combined with other considerations. For example, in an area where teenagers may sit on the backs of the benches, a bench with large slats, which is stronger, should be used, even though for sitting large slats are less comfortable than smaller ones. The general lesson to be kept in mind is that all factors must be considered together in choosing or designing a bench for a particular location.
A second factor in bench design is appearance. It is important that a bench fits in with its surroundings. The reason for this is that a bench, which appears to be an extension of the property it sits next to, will help to give a proprietary feel to the street. This increases the likelihood that business owners will take care of the bench (and the street) that will, in turn, have a positive effect on safety and security in the area.
The following design guidelines can be used in designing or selecting a bench that is suitable for most situations:
BENCH DESIGN GUIDELINES
- To be comfortable, there should be a 95-105 degree angle between the seat and the back, and the seat should be between 2 and 10 degrees off of horizontal.
- The depth of the seat should be 12 to 18 inches for benches with backs and 30 inches for backless benches.
- A seat height of 18 inches is generally the most comfortable.
- The front edge of the seat should be curved rather than squared off.
- The most comfortable seating surface is wood, which is resilient and does not readily conduct heat or cold.
- Small bench slats (2 inches) spaced closely together and following a contoured form are generally more comfortable than larger slats (8 inches). However, in areas where vandalism is a factor a larger size (e.g., 3 inches x 8 inches) should be used.
- The length of the seat should allow for twenty-four inches per person. However, people will sit closer to each other if there is an armrest separating them.
- Seatbacks that slope back slightly and have a slight curve are the most comfortable.
- The height of the backrest should be 20 inches to provide support for people’s backs and shoulders.
- Benches with no backs allow people to sit on both sides at the same time.
- The legs should not extend out past the seat, otherwise people may trip on them. If a large, solid leg is used, a kickspace (3 inches minimum) under the seat is needed.
- Armrests are useful both to help people to get out of the seat, and to divide a bench so that more people can fit along it. Segmenting the bench into sections through the use of armrests can provide a sense of privacy among groups as well as encourage people to sit closer together. The edge of the armrest should extend out to the edge of the seat, and it should have a firm, rounded gripping surface.
Benches should be constructed of durable materials that are resistant to weather, vandalism, and rusting. Benches can be made of concrete, wood, iron, steel, and fiberglass, but the most comfortable and durable material is wood.
If wood is used, the parts that most often require replacing are the slats. Slats should be stockpiled, or a bench manufacturer should be selected that has slats that can be reordered quickly.
Painting slats and supports requires time and funds. Some ways around painting are: using aluminum for supports; galvanizing steel supports before painting; staining instead of painting slats; and using concrete (such as in concrete standard or wall hung benches) to avoid corrosion or rust.
Using slats that are the same size aids in replacement and labor costs. Bench seating, for example, can be more economical by using as few as two different slats in one bench. Slat replacement can be made easier by the way it is attached to the bench structure and tradeoffs may need to be considered between ease of replacement and frequency of replacement. For example, a rod through a contour bench requires more time to be replaced than using bolts directly to the bench structure. However, the rod attachment is stronger and so it does not have to be replaced as often as using bolts.
Installation should be inexpensive, time efficient, and durable as possible. Installation plans should allow for experimentation with location, and bench arrangement.
Because many cities are not adequately staffed for a good bench maintenance program, benches are sometimes left derelict and broken benches are left in disrepair. This problem is magnified when people see the neglect and then make generalizations that influence their perceptions or feelings about the entire downtown.
Sometimes benches are vandalized. There is no bench that is vandal resistant. However, being aware of the likelihood of vandalism in particular areas can affect the type of bench selected for that area. The best solution to vandalism lies not in the type of bench used, but in developing an understanding of what types of vandalism occur, at what times, by what types of people, and then in trying to develop a program that will prevent it from occurring. The key to preventing vandalism in a downtown is locating benches where adjacent storeowners will assume some responsibility for their use and maintenance.