(Anti-)public seating roundup

Photo by Ville Tikkanen
Single-occupancy benches in Helsinki. Photo by Ville Tikkanen

Ville Tikkanen of Salient Feature points us to the “asocial design” of these single-person benches installed in Helsinki, Finland. In true Jan Chipchase style, he invites us to think about the affordances offered:

As you can see, the benches are located a few meters away from each other and staring at the same direction. What kind of sociality do particular product and service features afford and what not?

Comments on Ville’s photo on Flickr make it clear that preventing the homeless lying down is seen as one of the reasons behind the design (as we’ve seen in so many other cases).

Bench in Cornmarket, Oxford
The street finds its own uses for things. Photo from Stephanie Jenkins

Ted Dewan – the man behind Oxford’s intriguing Roadwitch project, which I will get round to covering at some point – pointed me to a fantastic photo of the vehemently anti-user seating in Oxford’s Cornmarket Street, which was covered on the blog last year. When I saw the seating, no-one was using it (not surprising, though to be fair, it was raining), but the above photo demonstrates very clearly what a pathetic conceit the attempt to restrict users’ sitting down was.

As Ted puts it, these are:

The world’s most expensive, ugly, and deliberately uncomfortable benches… Still, people have managed to figure out how to sit on them, although not the way the ‘designers’ expected. They might as well have written “Oxford wishes you would kindly piss off” on the pavement.

And indeed they were expensive – the set of 8 benches cost £240,000:

Benches in Oxford’s Cornmarket Street will now cost taxpayers £240,000 – and many have been designed to discourage people from sitting on them for a long time… the bill for the benches – dubbed “tombstones” by former Lord Mayor of Oxford Gill Sanders — has hit £240,000.

The seats, made of granite, timber and stainless steel, are due to be unveiled next week but shoppers wanting to take the weight off their feet could be disappointed, because they will only be able to sit properly on 24 of the 64 seats. There is a space for a wheelchair in each of the eight blocks, while the other 32 seats are curved and are only meant to be “perched” on for a short time… Mr Cook [Oxford City planning] said the public backed the design when consultation took place two years ago. He added: “There’s method in our madness. We did not want to provide clear, long benches both sides because we did not want drunks lying across them.

But a city guide said the council had forgotten the purpose of seating. Jane Curran, 56… said: “When people see these seats and how much they cost, they are going to be amazed.

“They look like an interesting design, but seats are for people to sit on… the real function of a seat has been forgotten.”

Mrs Sanders, city councillor for Littlemore, said: “I said time and again that the council should rethink the design, because I don’t think it’s appropriate for Cornmarket. People who need a rest if they’re carrying heavy shopping need to be able to sit down. If they can’t sit on half the seats it’s an incredible waste of money.”

David Robertson, the county executive member for transport, said: “They have been designed so that the homeless will not be able to use them as a bed for the night.”

Bench by Matthew Hincman
Matthew Hincman’s ‘bench object’ installed at Jamaica Pond, Boston, Mass. Photo from WBUR website

Following last week’s post on the ‘Lean Seat’, John Curran let me know about the ‘bench object’ installation by sculptor Matthew Hincman. This was installed in a Boston park without any permission from the authorities, removed and then reinstated (for a while, at least) after the Boston Arts Commission and Parks Commission were impressed by the craftsmanship, thoughtfulness and safety of the piece.

While this is probably not Hincman’s intention, the deliberately ‘unsittable’ nature of the piece is not too much beyond some of the thinking we’ve seen displayed with real benches.

Photo of Exeter St David's Station by Elsie esq.
Exeter St Davids station – photo by Elsie esq.

In a similar vein to the Heathrow Terminal 5 deliberate lack of-seats except in overpriced cafés, Mags L Halliday also told me about what’s recently happened at Exeter St Davids, her local mainline railway station:

There are no longer any indoor seats available without having to sit in the café, and the toilets are beyond the ticket barrier. So if you’re there waiting for someone off a late train, after the cafe has closed, you can only sit outside the building, and have no access to the toilet facilities (unless a ticket inspector on the barrier feels kind).

[First Great Western] are currently doing their best to discourage people from just hanging around waiting at Exeter St Davids. The recent introduction of barriers there (due to massive amounts of fare dodging on the local trains) has created a simply awful space.

If you take a look at the stats, FGW has lost over 5% points for customer satisfaction with their facilities in the last 6 months – I wonder why!

Waiting outdoors for late-night trains, with the cold wind howling through the station, is never pleasant anywhere, but I seem to remember St Davids being especially windy (south-south-west to north-north-east orientation). This kind of tactic (removing seats) might not be deliberate, but if it isn’t, it demonstrates a real lack of customer insight or appreciation. Neither reason is admirable.

UPDATE: Mags has posted photos (slideshow) of the recent changes at Exeter St Davids, along with notes – which also show other poor thinking by First Great Western, alongside the obvious removal-of-seating:

Click to see more notes

This is the only seating freely available at Exeter St Davids if you do not have a ticket (i.e. if you are waiting for someone). Note that one of the two benches is delightfully occupied.

Click to see more notes

Exeter St David’s no longer has any freely accessible indoor seating. This is the view of the increasingly encroached concourse area where you can wait for people. The only toilets are beyond the barriers.

Click to see more notes

Having walked into the main concourse, you have to turn 180 degrees in order to see the departures screen, then 180 degrees back to go through the gates.

What an attractive meeting point!


  1. I think it’s worth noting that people have obviously even managed to successfully sit on the “bench object”, judging by the supplied photo!

  2. I wonder if really, the use of benches by those needing a free bed doesn’t indicate a need to redesign the bench away from its inevitable use as a free bed, but a need to design a free bed?

    Requirements for a free bed:
    1) Functional – works as a bed
    2) Comfortable – good night’s sleep possible without too many aches and pains in the morning
    3) Sightly – not too unfamiliar – may even look like a bench
    4) Useful in daytime – can be used as a bench or other purpose when not in use as a bed
    5) Hygienic – self-cleaning by rain, or with assistance from hose pipe or newspaper covering
    6) Tidy – nearby litter bin for disposal of bed covering
    7) Secure – exposed for security through public visibility
    8) Resilient – withstand hard treatment and vandalistic attentions without significant functional detriment

    Someone must be able to design such a bed eh?

    “But, they will encourage vagrants”

    They may be useful to vagrants, but that’s no reason not to provide them. It would be like an airport not providing free seating because it encouraged poor people (who couldn’t even afford a cup of coffee) to fly.

    If vagrants are a problem, then free beds will reveal that problem more than cause it. And revealing problems is better than hiding them.

    “But vagrants are smelly. They can sleep in the hills.”

    So, provide free showers (solar heated, and gravity fed by rain or spring water).

    “But vagrants are abusive”

    They might be nicer if they felt a little more welcome in our town centers.

    “They intoxicate themselves with alcohol and drugs”

    Provide rewarding activities and entertainment?

    “Not possible. Vagrants are incorrigible”

    Perhaps one or two, who’ve been made that way because of a lifetime of rejection by intransigent councils and intolerant townsfolk?

    However, not providing free, static sun loungers to members of the public in public parks simply because smelly and abusive people tend to use them seems a bit churlish. Next, you’ll be trying to redesign park benches to prevent their use as beds too.

    Vagrants, tramps, gypsies, travellers, illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, are all human beings and all entitled to be classed as members of the public. When did ‘public’ get changed to mean ‘taxpayer of fixed abode’ that councils can start excluding others from consideration except as an unsanitary caste to be hidden or otherwised treated as criminals?

    If a certain group of people are a problem, they should be brought into prominence so that society may deal with them (accept, assist, and address). To hide them, or make the urban environment unattractive to them is divisive and inhuman, let alone detrimental to the urban environment.

    I’m not saying open the floodgates to shanty towns. I’m saying a problem that is being hidden from public view, by removing value from public spaces, is revealing a problem that isn’t being dealt with. The cracks are being papered over so that it will be inherited by the next council of crack-paperers to be elected in a few year’s time. Let’s admire the 14th century brickwork and let the cracks remind us that subsidence must be dealt with very shortly.

    Either we shouldn’t have homeless people and their existence should be brought to everyone’s attention (and why not in our public spaces), or we should have homeless people and our public spaces should welcome them.

    We can’t treat unsightly people like pigeons and put tons of little spikes in the places that they like perching so they don’t mess up the place. Some councils evidently believe they can, but then the committee mind, like the psychopathic mind of commercial organisations, can easily drift into sociopathic behaviour.

    What is wrong with the nomad?

    What is wrong with the hunter?

    Who fenced off the commons?

    We are the comfortable criminals who cast out our crude cousins.

  3. Dan

    That’s a brilliantly argued comment, Crosbie.

    The cracks are being papered over so that it will be inherited by the next council of crack-paperers to be elected in a few year’s time. Let’s admire the 14th century brickwork and let the cracks remind us that subsidence must be dealt with very shortly.

    As with so many things, the symptoms are being ‘treated’ rather than the causes. It’s apparently more expedient to paper over the cracks (get the homeless out of sight, ‘stop’ the public doing this or that) than to address the problem itself, because addressing the problem is a) difficult, b) requires longer-term thinking and c) has a risk of failure, which would make those involved look ‘silly’.

    Mags – thanks so much for the photos & notes – I’ll update the post accordingly.

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  6. what would you like to see improved with public waiting areas??? im doing a project to design a public waiting area and your suggestions would really help. thanks.

  7. Andrew Schwalenberg

    Davis Square in Somerville MA, has those same tombstone benches as well.

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  9. Alayne

    You might want to look at the book _City_ by William Whyte, which talks about the optimum use of benches to actually *encourage* public use of a space. First rule: group the benches so people can actually talk. Second, make them movable. Third, make them comfortable to sit in.

    I think there is a place in site design to discourage activities like drug-dealing, but you can do that best by simply avoiding hidden alcoves. Similarly, you do have to be aware that if you provide heated shelters in the downtown, some rubbies will use them as shelters. That doesn’t mean that ordinary people shouldn’t have a decent place to sit, and to rest their parcels.

    It’s really deeply unfriendly to public space and to pedestrians.

  10. Jesper W.

    I, too, have a hard time seeing just how creating uncomfortable public “rest areas” or removing such facilities alltogether is any good to anyone – I can’t really imagine a cold, tired citizen, standing in the rain next to four holes in the pavement where a bench used to be, thinking “well, I may be cold and tired and left without a place to sit – but it’s great, because I can’t see any vagrants from here…!”

    Anyway, what kind of city is it where no smelly hobos are allowed, not a single grafitto, not a scrap of paper, no noise, no dog poop, no pigeons (which is the place this “removal of all inconveniences and offensive things” must leaad to) – isn’t life in the city (also) about the multifacetted nature of thousands, even millions of people, occupying the same small geographic space…?

    As one city dweller, I’d thank my local authorities not to go there.

  11. David

    This has all come about because of the greed of First Group. They are ruining all our lovely stations (take London Paddington, Bristol and Exeter for a start) with ticket barriers which cause congestion and make the station a most unpleasant place to use.
    Remove the barriers and bring back some seating at Exeter!

  12. mark

    If your bench is attracting anti socialites, simply smear skunk shot gel on the bench underside. Nobody not even the most determined teen will want to saty and eat their kebab n’chips.

    Alternatively you can make benches a nice place for people to sit by placing movement sensors that start playing soothing pan pipe music for the “enjoyment” of the public using the bench lol

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