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Feature Article - January 2004

Pull Up a Chair

How site furnishings transform a space into a place

By Kelli Anderson


In 1974, Bryant Park, a public park in New York City, was declared a scenic landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in spite of the park's shady reputation as the last place anyone would want to be—unless they were dealing drugs.

Once the sight of the glorious Crystal Palace from the 1853-1854 World's Fair and afterward designed in the French Classical style, Bryant Park gradually became neglected and derelict. By the late '70s, it was a veritable wasteland—and a dangerous one at that.

Today, however, with a sunny-day-lunchtime count topping 4,000 people, Bryant Park is being celebrated as a great triumph for the Manhattan community. The nearly miraculous turnaround can be attributed to many things since its reopening in 1992 under private management, but some are giving a large part of the credit to none other than a humble site furnishing—a moveable, lightweight chair.

"Bryant Park was very, very bad," says Jerome Barth, director of park operations with the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in Manhattan. "Moveable seating was key."

Flying in the face of convention and embracing the classic models of parks in Paris and London, park management introduced moveable chairs and tables as a way to draw in the people. Moveable furnishing, it is theorized, creates a sense of security, of ownership, and allows people to arrange their own social space. With more people, came more security and finally, great success.

When it comes to outdoor furnishings, benches, trash receptacles, planters, lighting fixtures and water fountains all remain the core elements, with various improvements in materials and evolving designs. But it's ultimately knowing how to choose and use these main elements that can transform a commonplace outdoor space—or even a derelict one—into a comfortable gathering place that becomes a community.

DOING THE HOMEWORK

Site furnishings and amenities need to be a strategic part of the design plan from the very beginning with a budgeted line item all their own. Relegating furnishings and amenities to the end of the process could likely result in a beautiful but empty park.

A thorough site analysis asking questions like Who?, What?, Where?, How old?, How many?, and At what time of day?, for example, will certainly give you some insight into the park's activities, its traffic patterns and the kinds of groups who travel them.

Research methods from experienced landscape architects working on the project or working with specialists like the New York-based Project for Public Spaces, Inc. (PPS) are some sure ways of getting the input you need. Depending on the results, site furnishings may need to be updated, increased, decreased or moved.

Active areas where crowds gather such as sporting fields, waterfronts, playgrounds and scenic overlooks are obvious places of furnishing needs. Other sites for furnishing considerations might be at trail heads or intersections for resting tired feet, near toilets for waiting friends or family, at entrances, or at pick-up/drop-off points.

Programming also affects furnishing considerations. With the increase in specialty spaces like dog parks, skate parks or soccer fields, site furnishings and amenities specific to those activities become a necessity. Products ranging from doggie waste receptacles and doggie-friendly watering fountains to racks designed to hold skateboards make these specialty areas all that more unique and user-friendly.

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