Although understanding what prompts vibrant city life has been growing in the past 20 to 30 years, many architects and landscape architects continue to design street furniture with complete disregard for people’s known needs.
Solid slabs of granite or marble posing as benches reflect horizontally the vertical building blocks they accompany but reflect almost no appreciation of the people who might want to sit on them.
Danish architect Jan Gehl calls them “coffins,” adding, “Even though marble and polished granite weather beautifully, it is only south of Barcelona that these cold materials are pleasant to sit on…. And without a backrest no one stays very long.”
Since people generally sit longer than they stand or lean, people who linger require the most comfort and support from seating. Besides our backs, comfortable seats cradle our rears and support our arms.
Primary seating places are also at a height and slope that makes them easy to get out of, a necessity for the infirm and the elderly. Seat materials should have smooth surfaces, shed water, and feel cool in hot weather and neutral in cold weather.
Seating arrangements affect use. Benches in a row provide limited opportunities for conversation. Nonetheless, a row of benches in a row is useful for strangers to sit at a distance from one another.
Benches and chairs facing one another offer the strongest invitation to conversation, allowing friends and acquaintances to talk and observe one another at the same time. Benches placed slightly more open that right angles to one another offer the choice of conversation “at the corner” or sitting alone.
With a table in between, the invitation is extended to playing chess and checkers, reading with elbow support, and eating.
Movable café chairs, with or without tables, are popular in piazzas and city parks for allowing sitters to choose their group size and relationships to friends, sun, activities, and views.
More sitters are attracted to places with the fundamentals of water, food and bathrooms. Outdoor cafés offering coffee and snacks play a significant role in the liveliness of cities, which is one reason why Paris is so celebrated and emulated.
In temperate or cold climates, seats need to be placed in the sun and facing it. Even if sunlit areas are small, seating should be placed there because it has been found that people in sunlight tolerate more crowding than people in shade.
The season for sitting at outdoor eateries has been extended even in northern temperate climates like Denmark’s with glass windshields, overhead heaters, and cushions and blankets on chairs.
In hot climates and temperatures above 22o C (70 F), seats in open shade are most occupied. In semitropical climates, midday and midsummer seating is made attractive with awnings and canopies.
Surroundings matter, too. The largest number of sitters is attracted to spaces less than 100 m (330 ft) wide where there are sightlines to other people, city life, and handsome buildings. These ideal sitting places are detailed to be seen at walking speeds and include plants (especially trees), public art, and water features.
Finally, edge life contributes to attractive sitting spaces. Restaurants whose walls along the street can slide open take advantage of the same effect that sidewalk cafes do. In fact, people in front yards, on terraces, or on balconies play a significant role in the liveliness of urban and suburban spaces, and, fortunately, designers in recent decades have increasingly shaped edges to generate such liveliness.