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Why park benches are so important for our cities

A tribute to the bank in these health-obsessed times? After all, people are warned from morning to night how unhealthy sitting in an office is.

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Why park benches are so important for our cities

A tribute to the bank in these health-obsessed times? After all, people are warned from morning to night how unhealthy sitting in an office is. But that's not the point here. But about taking a seat in the city, to which the approaching spring will soon invite you again. In other words, urban seating furniture in parks, squares, green spaces, wastelands or streets.

About what urban developers and sociologists call "street furniture" and by that mean the furnishing of that sphere that you enter when you leave your own four walls: the public space. Because where people can pause, sit down to rest, look, ponder and possibly strike up a conversation with others, only then does the city become the city people love.

In any case, in the mid-19th century, when the first public benches appeared in Europe's parks, they were primarily reserved for the bourgeoisie, who could afford to stroll around during the day. Édouard Manet painted such a wealthy couple in 1879: a young woman is sitting relaxed on a park bench, one arm hanging casually over the backrest behind which her husband is standing. That was also Theodor Fontane's world: "I'm always, even in life, for resting points. Parks without benches can stay stolen from me.”

In the Walter-Benjaminian sense, modern cities may no longer be a place of strolling curiosity, of reading the streets and places. They are more likely to be described as non-places of speed and noise, extreme car traffic and cold commercialism.

But while the megalopolises in Asia tend to have the character of a collection of buildings with no internal or external connection, European cities still have their core, that grown structure that one of the world's most renowned urban planners, the Dane Jan Gehl, praises.

He names five to six-storey residential buildings, boulevards, squares, parks and trees as the ideal habitat for Homo sapiens. Gehl has converted Times Square into a car-free piazza, has worked in Arab countries, in Greenland, Moscow and China, but he has always encountered this homo sapiens. It's about the relation to our body, the way and speed in which we move, simply about our senses. Just the "human measure".

And the human dimension definitely includes the seat. It is a free offer to take a seat in the midst of a great whole. Anyone who uses them, i.e. owns them, is in a way a useless connoisseur, which also has subversive traits. In seeing and observing, he has the world in front of him as a stage. If only benches could tell what happens on them!

Many rediscovered their value when sitting on them was banned at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. A grotesque sight: closed benches! It is therefore not presumptuous to see a symbol of egalitarianism in benches. Everyone sits on it with equal rights. A bench is for everyone.

Benches are also romantic places where lovers meet and immortalize their names. Or they can be places of knowledge, such as in "Forrest Gump", who tells his life sitting on a bench. Romance novels are set on a bench or love stories like Woody Allen's "Manhattan". Crime novels also like to have a bank as a cover.

Benches, especially in dark parks, are prime spots for drug crime, see the TV series Breaking Bad. Whereby now slowly the area of ​​the gloomy is touched. The Wilhelminian style bench had lost its innocence at the latest when it said: "Only for Aryans".

The recognizable consequences of the weather, but also enormous vandalism, have recently led to the comfortable wooden bench with backrest becoming a concrete or stone block. Or even, near train stations and bus stops, an uncomfortable, compartmentalized bucket seat made of plastic or cold metal. Critics see this as an attempt to make it impossible to sit down without consumption, to prevent people from resting and instead to force them into the surrounding shops and cafés. In addition, homelessness and the formation of clusters of social problem groups such as alcoholics or drug addicts pose a threat to the facilities.

Urban planners and architects have therefore promoted "defensive architecture" in recent decades, because the homeless should no longer be able to sleep on public benches. Street artist Banksy protested against this. In 2019, shortly before Christmas, one wall showed a reindeer pulling a bench with a homeless person instead of a sleigh and presents. The problem (or the comforting thing) is that regulation and zoning work only to a limited extent, since impromptu gatherings are part and parcel of what constitutes the city and the public, both positively and negatively.

But there are always counter-movements against decay, destruction and a lack of imagination in urban planning. Not only have companies like Green Systems, Resorti or CO33 specialized in the production of rot-proof urban seating furniture, they are also innovating the type of design with urban planners and architects. Spectacular modules made up of seats, tables and integrated plants in all imaginable variations, colors and materials are new. This latest generation of street furniture blurs the lines between functionality and art. And art has never hurt cities.

So people keep experimenting, even if the good old wooden benches in parks or cemeteries may rot. Cities are just learning beings. For example Wolfenbüttel, which agreed with the citizens on mobile wooden benches that are set up for summer festivals or the Christmas market. They are stored in winter. In many metropolises there are now benches with solar panels and charging stations for mobile phones and laptops.

Cities without benches aren't really cities. Benches give the rooms structure, orientation and security. You only have to close your eyes and think of all the beautiful places: the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin, the Vienna Rathausgarten with its wooden benches arranged in a snake-like manner, all the little gardens in Paris and London.

When cities and municipalities become paralyzed because they argue with costs (as a rule, they do not have a fixed budget for seating furniture), then the citizens step in: save the bank! Help, banking crisis! In many quarters and parts of the city, private initiatives have formed that are fighting with district, building and city green offices. Car parking spaces are usually converted into mobile seating areas with urban gardening, as it began in New York in 2005 with “Parking Day”.

In Hamburg, an initiative calls for a bench every 500 meters. In Halle (Saale), art students have designed seating furniture for the city. Perhaps, in addition to the census, we should also start a bank census in major cities around the world? Seat density would definitely be an indicator of urban happiness. Then you would find out that there are 9,000 benches in New York's Central Park alone, and a total of 600 in Berlin's Tiergarten.

Many take it for granted so much that they don't want to deal with it at all. But benches don't just fall from the sky, they are man-made and wanted. So if you happen to pass one again: stop and have a seat. You will not regret it.

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