Five years ago, I phoned my neighbor, friend, and community collaborator Chris Duderstadt. “Chris”, I said. “With your design know-how, can you design a bench that’s easy and cheap to reproduce?” Chris disappeared into his laboratory and emerged a few weeks later with just the simple and cheap design I was looking for…
Great design, Chris!
The dust had barely settled on the idea when Chris phoned me a week later. “Adam”, he said with a quivering, excited voice. “I’ve been thinking about the bench idea and… I’ve decided to make it my mission to get a bench on every street in the neighborhood!” The Public Bench Project was born.
And ever since, Chris, with occasional input from me, has held firm to that mission. Benches have sprung up around the neighborhood…
Outside Emilia and Griffin’s house…
Sally’s house (Chris is on the bench too)…
…And many more spots. This collage shows many of the benches…
True to Chris’s vision, the benches are on almost every street in the neighborhood. And they’re still popping up in new places.
The benches started as an impulse. But over time they’ve taught us a lot. Here are five of the benches’ most valuable lessons…
1. Benches build community
Conveniently located benches attract the locals who pass by often. The more that residents use these benches the more their neighbors will notice and get to know each other. Over time, a stronger community is built. Says Chris, “To see strangers sitting on a bench brings joy to my heart.”
“Conveniently located” is the key phrase here. The most used benches are close to where many people go, such as shops and densely-clustered homes. Well-located benches also keep their backs to buildings and face the street.
We’ve discussed elsewhere how game-changing for everybody a strong community can be. Benches are a crucial part of the “landscape of community”.
2. Shaping places for ourselves is immensely satisfying
Walking around the neighborhood, every time I see a bench I get a small burst of happiness. We, the community, created that bench. It makes the neighborhood feel a little more “ours”. It’s been so long since the people handed responsibility for change to governments and corporations that we’ve forgotten the satisfaction of doing things for ourselves. But the benches have revived our love of creation; children, adult artists, neighbors, many people have contributed their inspiration.
Indeed, the famed architect Christopher Alexander writes: “When a group of people make their environment for themselves, this has enormous healing consequences.”
3. Incremental changes are the path to near-perfection
There have been few problems with the benches. This one, installed outside the gift store Urban Bazaar, was an exception. After the bench was installed, homeless people began sleeping on it (not alone a problem), urinating next to it, and leaving trash all over the area. So the bench got removed.
But that wasn’t a big problem, was it? The bench was tried at this location, it didn’t work, so it was removed. Simple! This is very different to the response from City Hall back in the 1990s: Homeless people were sleeping on the benches downtown so, in knee-jerk short-sightedness, all the benches were removed.
The Public Bench Project shows the superiority of the incremental approach. One bench gets removed, another gets its legs adjusted to accommodate for a slope, another gets repainted to remove graffiti. Over time, an optimum state is reached: Every bench is adapted to its precise location.
4. More benches make livelier and safer places
Three people above sit on a row of our benches. Their presence is making this area livelier. Benches are a powerful way to increase liveliness because one person on a bench for 30 minutes creates as much “people presence” as 30 people passing by for one minute.
These women are also making the street safer. They will naturally notice anything unusual. People are far less likely to commit a crime when folks are sitting on these benches.
5. Sittable neighborhoods are fairer places
Neighbor Sherry (above) tells this wonderful story about one of our benches: “I was recovering from an illness and needed to walk to the post office, which was a stretch given my sapped energy. Our home is equidistant from the Irving/9th and the 22nd/Irving post office. Which way did I head? To Irving/9th, of course, knowing that there would be benches that I could sit on if I needed to rest. Indeed, I spent a lovely 10-15 minutes on the Public Bench outside the cheese shop at 12th and Irving. I couldn’t have made it without you!”
The more places there are to sit in our neighborhoods, the more we’ll see young children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. This is a fairer, kinder landscape.
A bench, such a simple object! And yet so powerful when it’s made and cared for by the community.
Find out more about The Public Bench Project here. And if you live in or near San Francisco, email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested caring for a free publicly-accessible bench outside your building.