Feature Article - January 2004
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Pull Up a Chair

How site furnishings transform a space into a place

By Kelli Anderson


Whyte went on to observe that people, although attracted to locations where there are other people to watch and interact with, also need to feel secure. From his meticulous studies and observations, he learned how site furnishings married with good landscape design can promote not just feelings of safety but create safety itself. Bryant Park, a poster child for Whyte's principles put into practice, demonstrates how successfully transformation can take place.

People tend to feel the safest when surrounded by others, and one way to attract people has come from a paradigm-shifting approach to moveable site furnishings or flexible seating. Oddly enough, when seating is unbolted, it attracts people in such great numbers that, contrary to common opinion on flexible seating, there is less, not more vandalism or theft. With the freedom to move seating even by as little as three inches, it creates a sense of making a place one's own. People are attracted by the ability to create their own social groupings and feel secure in the impression that unfettered furnishings must mean the site is well-managed and supervised.

"Moveable seating allows a much larger body of people to use the space," Barth says. "And that in turn, makes it safer. People like them. It's a tremendous tool to draw people in."

And seeing the chair as a tool is crucial.

"The key requirement is to see these park elements as disposable," Barth explains. "If you buy, say, 1,000 chairs, expect to lose half by the end of the year from breakage and wear. Many managers don't focus on the value of the chairs to the park, they focus on the value of the chair. It's an investment to draw people in. Parks are for people, not chairs."

Then again, there are those places where seating is going to be remote by nature of the park's design or where funding and management cannot logistically be setting out, retrieving or maintaining this kind of seating arrangement—or at least not in all places. It really depends on your park.


Whatever number and arrangement of chairs, seating, lighting, trash receptacles, drinking fountains, bollards or planters you determine you need, moveable or otherwise, eventually those items need to be selected. However, one of the most common mistakes, according to Donna Plunkett, ASLA, is neglecting the opportunity to choose materials and styles of site furnishings and amenities that reflect the personality and identity of the community.

"You don't want to just pull something out of a catalog," says Plunkett, senior planner with EDAW, Inc. in San Francisco. "The important thing is that you must represent the context of the place they're in."

Rather than choosing more generic furnishings, Plunkett suggests selecting customized pieces, which most vendors can supply (albeit at a slightly higher cost), with the belief that it may be better to have fewer but well-designed elements that compliment both aesthetics and comfort.

Looking to the history or ethnicity of an area is one way to create a connection with the community. Themes and identities can be represented with something as simple as an embossed logo and unified color scheme. In keeping with the surroundings, consider using the natural materials and styles found in the region, whether it be native stone, wood or architectural styles that reflect the uniqueness of a town or region. Go for the authentic.

Even a well-intentioned masterpiece of design can be a big mistake in the long run, as Al Kopf, ASLA, landscape architect for the City of Asheville, N.C., observed regarding a park he had visited in which residents' views and identity were not included in the final results. The park today is in shambles. Ownership is part and parcel with identity.

In Carol Stream, Ill., scenic tree-canopied bike paths and trails now criss-cross the county where trains once puffed and chugged. The town's historical tie to the once omnipresent railroads has given rise to train themes that can be seen in its most recent addition, Coyote Crossing, a miniature golf course. The clubhouse is designed as a Victorian train station, with crossing signals and signage that all reflect an appreciation for the nostalgic.

Looking to old photographs from days gone by can also aid in choosing everything from furnishing style to furnishing placement in a park. For historical parks like the Olmsted-designed Prospect Park in New York City, furnishings choices were prescribed by the boundaries inherent in being a historical Brooklyn park intent on authenticity. Benches were designed and even placed according to the information contained in vintage photographs.