“Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come” said Victor Hugo, famous author of Les Miserables and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even though he was talking about crime and punishment in the mid-nineteenth century, the sentiment stands, or given this post’s topic, sits. A recent flurry of media attention and a nationally-trending hashtag (#SitTO) has finally started a long overdue conversation about Toronto’s public spaces, namely their lack of public seating. See, while Toronto has no shortage of engaging streets, vibrant neighbourhoods, and dynamic public spaces – seriously check out footage from Jurassic Park during the NBA playoffs – there’s very few places where you can take a load off. Here’s a few reasons in no particular order about why that’s a problem and why you should care about this in the first place.
It’s a public health issue. For the very young, the very old, and those with a range of mobility issues, public seating at regular intervals and/or at key destinations serves a critical function in making our cities more accessible and healthier. Public seating means having the option to rest, or in some cases to simply be, in a public space. During cold winters and sweltering summers, the ability to take a break from the elements might mean the difference between a broken ankle from a slip, or heatstroke from prolonged exertion. And for those living with a physical disability – visible or otherwise – being able to sit can be the difference between isolation from, or participation in, the life of a city.
It boosts the economy. Walk by a restaurant or coffee shop with a patio on a sunny day and tell me that that business would make more money without that patio. The same principle, albeit on a larger scale, applies to seating in public spaces. Shoppers might just visit one more store knowing they can rest before heading home with their haul, hungry pedestrians will say “sure, why not” to that enticing taco truck comfortable in the fact that they can sit and scarf down a burrito without spilling pico de gallo down their shirt, and office workers can head back to work for a productive afternoon after a quick snooze in the sun. More than that, though, research shows that crowded spaces spur innovation, giving a direct boost to a city’s competitive edge.
It creates community. A well-established urban design principle is that “people attract people”. Public seating gives people the ability to come together and participate both actively and passively in public life. Humans are inherently social animals and seeing others in a space makes it more interesting and more attractive to visit and linger, if only to watch the others in a space. And as more people congregate in an area, the safer it becomes, creating a positive social feedback loop that erodes barriers between people and encourages interaction. These facing-chairs created by design collective raumlaborberlin for Montreal in 2012 are a stellar example of how seating can literally create conversation.
It’s just good design. The thing about public seating is that its importance is easy to underestimate until you notice its absence. Take the image above. Without the picnic tables, this space outside of Scadding Court in Toronto wouldn’t be a “place”, it would just be a sidewalk lined with shipping containers selling food. Transforming an underutilized space into a thriving public space in many cases just needs a moveable chair or twenty.
Our cities aren’t getting any less crowded and apartments aren’t getting any bigger, so naturally urbanites are turning to public spaces – parks, plazas, and sidewalks – as the places where we gather to meet our friends and share our lives. And as we would our own backyards and living rooms, we have to make our public spaces welcoming places where we can turn to each other and say “Here, have a seat”.
Danny Brown is an urban planner passionate about technology and the potential of unused and neglected public spaces among a great many other urban things, including, in this case, public seating. Follow him on Twitter @dannybr0wn and join the conversation at #SitTO.