A Tribute to the Park Bench
Why these often unnoticed street additions are everlastingly important
On my latest walk, I took a brief rest at a wood bench that faced a medium-sized lake. A gaggle of geese were swimming in the water, and a slight breeze blew over their closed wings. The faint chill that came with the gust signaled the oncoming autumn season, though the sun’s hot rays still beamed through the forest greenery that surrounded the area. A sense of calm swept over me as I took in the scene, which was quiet, peaceful, and easy.
Such a simple, yet pleasurable moment is something we all need to experience from time to time, and the true cause of my witnessing this particular lovely scene was the bench that I took respite on. If it weren’t there, I wouldn’t have stopped to sit down and notice the beautiful day in front of me. And so, in this article, I’d like to pay homage to these often overlooked additions of most parks, neighborhoods, and nature paths.
Park benches feature surprisingly often in pop culture, from books to movies to art to even video games. Think of the ending scene in The Catcher in the Rye, where Holden Caulfield watches his sister Phoebe ride on a carousal while sitting on a bench in Central Park, feeling oddly and uncharacteristically happy as he sees her go round and round. When someone mentions “Forest Gump,” most people picture Forest famously sitting on a park bench with a suitcase at his foot and a box of chocolates on his lap. In art, many of the popularly recognizable works of Leonid Afremov include scenes of colorful parks with benches at the forefront, lining a pathway of softly lit streetlights. And in order to save your progress in the video game Hollow Knight, a player must rest at one of the nearest benches that are scattered all over the game’s map.
Obviously, the park bench is a symbol that regularly crops up in both the virtual and real world. Once I realized just how often this piece of street furniture appears in our everyday lives, I reached out to my friend Kiana, who frequents Central Park for her walks and runs, to ask what ideas she immediately associates with park benches. She suggested words including togetherness, community, people watching, and resting on a journey. I’m sure most people would agree with her response, though I also found a Tarot site that described these public seating fixtures as a symbols of patience, regrouping, safety, rest, and contemplation. Among all of these terms, I think it’s safe to say that, overall, benches encourage friendship and act as a place of repose. But there are some instances in which they are thought of as spots where negative, anti-social behavior is facilitated, and in response to this belief, there has consequently been significant changes to public seating areas in many neighborhoods.
Public benches have a substantial (though again, often unnoticed) influence on the way people behave. Specifically, their design subtly encourages or discourages people from participating in certain social behaviors. For example, some benches are made without backs to them, or are built with a sloped seat, deterring folks from lingering in the same spot for too long. Other benches may have strange curves or waves that act as uncomfortable arm rests. The most famous example of purposeful design in street furniture include anti-homeless benches, which have an arm rest or bar built in the middle of the bench that prevents one from laying down flat on the seat. Such modifications to the typical park bench are usually made because of people’s fear of misuse with the seats; it’s believed that a free, “sit-able” bench will lead to unwanted public activity like drinking and drug use. Because of this, huge debates have been incited within many communities over the accessibility of public park benches and other street furniture.
Despite the fear, park benches are heavily needed by most people, especially the elderly. According to Broxap, a UK manufacturer and street furniture supplier, “Elderly people are suffering more and more from mental illnesses with 28% of women over 65 being diagnosed with depression. Depression in elderly people is a result of many different factors, with one of the key factors being isolation.” The National Institute on Aging explains some of the effects older people experience when suffering from loneliness:
Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.
Park benches are one powerful way to combat loneliness and, by extension, can help to reduce related health conditions in seniors. A little small talk can go a long way when it comes to decreasing the mental strain of isolation, and benches are a perfect place where an individual can strike up a conversation with another, be they friend or stranger. The health benefits that come with accessible park benches do not exclusively affect an older demographic, nor do they only help to combat loneliness and depression. Other pros of public seating, according to the The University of Sheffield, include the following:
- Benches encourage people to spend a longer time outside. Just like what occurred on my latest walk, park benches allow people to stop and smell the roses and enjoy the outdoors and surrounding nature. Being outside in itself is also good for promoting mental health.
- Public benches allow you to met new people, and acts as a place to gather with friends. These seating areas are spots where a community can gather, which is “particularly important for people who find cafes too expensive or may be marginalised from other collective environments, such as work or education.”
- They’re places of rest, which is good for physical health. Whether a person is highly active or has restricted mobility, public benches that are spaced out at regular intervals serve as reliant stopping points where people can rest at leisure after energetic activity.
- These seating fixtures are a “go-to” spot for people in the neighborhood, increasing their feelings of safety and acceptance in the community. When public benches are used as meeting points by people, a sense of belonging to the area is effectively established, boosting mental, emotional, and social well-being in individuals.
Overall, the need for park benches outweighs the risk of unwanted behavior in these public areas. No matter what age you are, everybody feels the need to belong, and a park bench can be the key to sparking connections between others, thus assuring a sense of community. Therefore, it’s crucial to endorse comfortable design, free accessibility, and proper management for benches in all parks. Efforts like Central Park’s “Adopt-A-Bench” program, where donors can have a personalized plaque installed on one of the park’s 9,000 plus benches, are prime examples that prove how public seating truly helps to advance the social well-being of citizens. Small, though meaningful touches like plaques further encourage people to contribute to their community, and let’s face it: who doesn’t find themselves curiously reading the plaque placed on the bench where they’re sitting?
Park benches are, above all, a place of rest and a place of meeting. A place to build friendships, and a place of idle equanimity. If you’re looking for a meaningful way to provide for your community, consider donating to your town’s park conservation programs to help fund for more accessible public seating. And if you’re looking to increase your own quality of life in a little but mighty way, find your local park bench and sit a spell.
Julia Collucci writes big thoughts about the things she sees on her walks in both local neighborhoods and far-away places. Follow her Medium account Little Walks, Big Thoughts to read more of her articles.