This article was initially conceived as a paean to the park bench as emblem and occasion of informal sociability. Enthused by a visit to some parks in Paris, and being delighted by the seats (more anon) seen there, I was going to make the argument for similar seats here in the UK based on the view that they could help enhance the sociability of the public realm, complements to the traditional park bench. But a little thought made me see that I was wrong about the connection between park bench and sociability – too simplistic, seeing what I wished to see, and not what was there. So, now I wish to promote those very same seats, but for different reasons. But first, park benches.
‘Park benches are set as seating places within public parks, and vary on the amount of people they can seat’, so says Wikipedia in an offering unlikely to arouse controversy. A bench, then, always offers space for more than one, otherwise we would call the sitting place a ‘seat’ or ‘chair’. Yet, oddly, park benches are not very sociable places – we tend to head for an empty bench if wanting a break from our leisurely perambulations; and when there is no option but to sit on an already occupied bench, we may – just may – acknowledge our now co-sitter with a nod, a word, a smile. But otherwise silently wish them away. And they are probably having thoughts not dissimilar. Of course, if we are with friends or family we will sit and converse with them. But otherwise, whether we are one alone, or with friends or family, we want the park bench to ourselves. Our unwished for co-sitter has acquired the status of intruder – and this in a space we have no right to think of as our own.
Thinking this I had a quick whizz around the internet (as one does) and found that these observations appear to be confirmed by research commissioned by Kingsmill. As to why Kingsmill, part of Allied Bakeries, should be interested in parks I leave you to ponder (or click on the link for further elucidation):
“Research reveals reserved Brits give strangers the cold shoulder on park benches
“Conversation-shy Brits would rather pack up and go if they are joined on a park bench by a stranger, research has revealed.
“The nation is home to millions of park benches but sitting down unleashes territorial feelings and a staggering 41% of us admit we would leave within five minutes if someone sat down next to us.
“‘Once we sit down, it seems that bench is ours and anyone who tries to share it can be seen as an invader. That feeling is very strong for some people even if the other person sits at the end of the bench and doesn’t say a word'”
By way of contrast, we are generally pleased that people – strangers – are in the park with us. In part for the reassurance that the presence of others brings, in part because other people are gentle feasts for our eyes: people watching is free, freeform theatre.
Our response to the park bench, on the one hand, and to the park on the other, seem to be in gentle tension with each other, pulling in different directions. The one wishing for the expulsion or at least non-presence of the stranger; the other, pleased at their presence, perhaps requiring it.
Park benches, then, do not often or easily prompt expressions of sociability, quite the opposite.
Other features of park benches, are that they are hard, rigid, generally immovable and sometimes oddly proportioned so that three can sit easily together, but the space remaining barely accommodates a fourth without a squeeze. And squeeze, as has been implied, is not want you want to be doing on a park bench, certainly not with a stranger. (Although if on a park bench with one’s ‘main squeeze’, some squeezing may be precisely what is desired.)
Just to confirm, I love park benches. On a sunny day, that is where you will find me perched. But they could do with augmentation. So let us turn briefly to Paris. The pictures – admittedly not of the highest quality – I took them, speak for themselves.
These seats – unlike park benches – are not our masters determining where and how we will be, but prospective collaborators, waiting to respond to our individual wiles and wishes. Flexible friends, enabling us to be with others, or to be alone. And, implicitly, they take account of that appendage disregarded by the conventional park bench: the leg. See here in some of the photos how the desire to stretch, to raise the leg, can be accommodated. The only was to ease or stretch one’s leg on a conventional park bench is by infringing the unspoken conventions associated with it: sit, do not lie.
Each day, each hour perhaps, these seats populate the park in different ways. The seats have backs, and often armrests – welcomed by people as they get older.
My initial thought was to promote their use in UK parks on the basis that they enhance informal sociability, but that outcome is by no means assured. Rather, the justification is that they are responsive to park users, they allow both solitariness and groupings of different numbers and configurations. In Paris, they are also free. We should have them here.
 Kingsmill is part of Allied Bakeries