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.
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.
Even seemingly perfect design plans can go awry, however, when transferred from the ideals of paper to the unpredictability of flesh-and-blood interaction. People may not gravitate to a space as planned or, over time, public needs may change. Success is seldom a one-time, one-size-fits-all equation.
"Not everybody can get it right the first time," says Phil Myrick, assistant vice president of PPS. "What might work this year may not work at all in three more years. The success of anyplace is 80-percent management, not design."
Myrick contends that a regularly managed presence on site to evaluate what areas are working and which are not, coupled with a willingness to rearrange and adapt a space, will ultimately keep a site humming and buzzing with people.
So what makes a space hum and buzz?
For PPS, its strategies for orchestrating successful public spaces are based in large part on the insights and observations of a former Fortune magazine editor-turned-urbanologist, William H. Whyte, who wrote his seminal works on the topic of human behaviors in public urban settings in the late '50s and early '60s.
Basically, Whyte boiled his observations down to one basic premise echoed in the words of a Scandinavian proverb: People come where people are. (Is it any wonder that people-watching is a favorite human pastime or that children would rather play at your feet than in an out-of-the-way playroom or isolated back yard?)
Rather than arranging benches in a traditional linear fashion, which creates a sense of isolation where seating will be less likely used and more easily abused, Whyte encouraged seating arrangements in groups to promote social interaction. Triangulation, a term used by PPS, takes this grouping concept a step further.
"Benches on a path are all right, but a path isn't enough to connect it to people; it can still be isolated," Myrick says. "A bench plus a path plus an attractive garden or near a kiosk or playground—an activity—these give a reason for people to go there."
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.
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."
One sure way to make patrons get up from their seats in a hurry is to place a trash receptacle too close to the seating area, which, although probably well-intentioned, tends to draw unwanted bees and waft unpleasant smells. A generally recommended 10 feet to 20 feet away from seating should do the trick.
For areas in a more natural setting, trash receptacles are best treated to blend in with their surroundings in muted greens and browns and should be placed in areas where they won't detract from the view. Choosing animal-proof varieties is also a good idea.
Lighting fixtures can add a lot to a site, offering not only a decorative element but also adding a sense of security. Metal halide, mercury vapor or sodium vapor are gases typically used in lighting, which have their own pros, cons and colors ranging from yellow to blue. But there can be too much of a good thing.
"Lighting is a huge issue," Plunkett says, "The most challenging thing is to do lighting well. Placement, intensity, off-site glare are real concerns."
Fixtures should blend in, Plunkett advises, and be placed on poles with appropriate height. Too much lighting or lighting that remains on longer than necessary is not only bad for the pocketbook but can even have a negative impact on wildlife.
Kopf agrees, adding that not only do you want to avoid over-lighting an area, but you also want to avoid dark pools. Whether to light or not to light is also a question best determined by knowing if after-dusk park use is welcome or whether a trail will be monitored at night for safety. Lighting areas that will not be monitored can give an illusion of safety and invite trouble.
When it comes to outdoor furnishings, benches, trash receptacles, planters, lighting fixtures and water fountains all remain the core elements. But it's ultimately knowing how to choose and use these main elements that can transform an ordinary outdoor space into a comfortable gathering place.
Safety, environmental concerns and attention to the special needs of the disabled also means checking out those furnishings and amenities in light of EPA and ADA guidelines, which can be found on their respective Web sites, www.epa.gov and www.ada.gov.
Site furnishings and amenities like seating and water fountains are even available to suit the special needs of the half-pints among us—children—in well-suited spaces like playground areas.
The latest information on playground safety is available through a variety of sources, such as the National Playground Safety Institute at www.nrpa.org or through the National Program for Playground Safety at www.uni.edu/playground/home.html.
Not only are children delighted to perch themselves in seating where little feet don't dangle, but thankful too are the grownups who's backs are spared the aches and pains of hoisting little ones up to reach adult-sized drinking fountains and benches. There really is a little something for everyone.
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