Feature Article - January 2004
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Pull Up a Chair

How site furnishings transform a space into a place

By Kelli Anderson


No matter what style or cohesive look is decided upon, universal rules for bench placement is the same. Locating a bench near something—visually anchoring it to a place with a substantial planter, beautiful landscaping, near a wall, tree or sculpture—makes the place feel more secure and inviting to the user. Locating seating in easily visible areas offers a sense of security and reduces vandalism, vagrancy and loitering.

Whether placing a bench along a pathway or in view of activities and scenery, it's a good idea to pay attention to the mowing strip. Having a perimeter around all site furnishings, for that matter, is a good thing—it eliminates the nuisance of mowing and the tendency for feet to get muddy in inclement weather.

For those benches placed near a path, the solid surface beneath can either be an extension of the path material or, for more visual interest, can be made of a different material. Along those same lines, it's a good idea for seating to be at least one-and-a-half feet back from a path for easy clearance from pedestrians.

If promoting social time is the goal, comfortable benches with backs set in groups of two or more is ideal.

"Sitting next to each other is harder than, say, a 90-degree angle to encourage interaction," says Carl Kelemen, ASLA, principal of Evergreen Landscape Associates in Roslyn, Pa. "Where lengthy socialization is not encouraged, use backless benches. They're not as likely to stay as long."


In choosing site furnishings, the second-most important consideration—after knowing how many and what kind— is what material(s) to use.

"With ever-decreasing money and budgets, we're looking for site furnishings that hold up and can be easily fixed," says Mary Fox, vice president for capitol and planning at Prospect Park Alliance in New York City.

But even on a tight budget, the life expectancy of a product needs to be factored into the equation. The longevity and low maintenance of an initially higher cost product may ultimately make the more cost-effective choice in the long run.

The following is a basic list of some common materials available today for site furnishings and some considerations on their use:

RECYCLED PLASTIC—an environmentally friendly material popular for its longevity, low maintenance and vandalism-resistance. Although susceptible in high temperatures to some softening and sagging, recycled plastic is now being designed by some companies with steel-reinforced frames or with a steel understructure. Its heavy construction is both a plus for those concerned about theft or a minus for those looking for a more mobility.

RECYCLED ALUMINUM—a durable, low-maintenance and affordable material, this lightweight product is often coated or anodized to inhibit corrosion.

CONCRETE—very durable and more decorative than ever before with such options as aggregate, sandblasted and polished surfaces or integrated colors. Concrete is also a common material for planters and bollards, whose use is on the rise as they play double-duty in creating standoff distances around buildings with the ever-increasing concerns about security.

POWDER-COATED STEEL—very durable, strong and attractive. Although the coating can be scratched or vandalized, a cold-patch kit can be used to reseal the area and prevent rusting.

WOOD—the most affordable and a beautiful material, wood is also considered the least durable with more high-end exceptions such as rosewood or teak. One highly durable exception, however, stands out: Ipe wood. Although expensive, Ipe wood from South America is virtually vandal-proof; its dense grain only can be cut with carbide-tipped tools, cannot be scratched and is resistant to burning, all with the beauty of wood and the durability of concrete. The aesthetic appeal of wood is coupled by its comfort; it stays relatively cool in summer and feels warmer in winter. Whatever woods are used, however, it's important to ensure they are cultivated from sustainable sources.

WROUGHT IRON—durable and beautiful, it has both longevity and is well-suited for certain aesthetic styles. Must be maintained to prevent rusting.