You can't do that (sit) in public


This summer I visited two different European countries: Germany and Denmark. In Berlin, I was shocked to see how many public parks were in the city. I used a city bike program while I was there and biked all over the city. Parks were plentiful, large, well-maintained, well-used, covered in trees - like mini forests. There were public pools and adventure playgrounds, concert areas, picnic grounds, public workshops. Of course in addition are many public plazas. Most plazas have shopping all around, but the parks were usually a respite.

Even outside of parks and plazas, there is plentiful public seating. Benches. Chairs. Etc.

In Denmark the number of parks is enormous. I found parks with outdoor free rock climbing walls. Free food distributed to families each day in the playground. So many bike paths. Canals. And yes, plenty of seating.

Here in New York City and frankly most cities and suburbs in the US it's impossible to find public seating in most places. If anything, there might be a bench in front of a business, for use temporarily by customers, but even that is rare to find.

I live near a major, beautiful public park, and moved to this neighborhood largely because of the park. The park does have benches, but not that many, and even those often feature anti-homeless features to prevent homeless people from sleeping. This is (written cynically) ostensibly cheaper than providing mental health and housing support services.

So where can you sit? You can sit on your own porch if you're lucky or wealthy enough to have one. You can sit on a restaurant's chair or bench while you're a paying customer. You can sit on the ground in a park, which is difficult for the elderly and disabled. Or you can purchase a portable camp chair for $$ and carry to a public place, but usually a parking lot outside a concert or stadium, a beach, or campsite.

A few weeks ago my neighborhood had an old-fashioned community yard sale. This kind of thing feels rare in New York, to have coordinated between neighbors. At one of the large houses nearby I saw they had out what looked like church pews and old seats. They had what appeared to be pictures from magazines cut out and glued all over the benches. I didn't know if they were for sale or what the story was. I didn't explore. I just biked on by. Imagine my surprise the next day to see these pews and benches and seats pop up all over the neighborhood. The seating has appeared where it's been missing: in front of an apartment building, two outside of a laundromat, one on a busy street. And of course, they are always filled with people. At all hours of the day you can find people sitting, resting, talking. One time I saw an unhoused man sitting, asleep on a bench. And so what. The next day he was gone and others were sitting in his place. I've been wanting to photograph them but they always have people sitting on them and I don't want to photograph people in public. So I returned in the late evening to take some photos, when less people are out.

Chairs in front of apartment building with families
Chairs in front of apartment building with families

It's great to see this ad hoc urbanism. I'll be curious to see how long it lasts and if neighbors can take care of them.

Benches in front of laundromat
Benches in front of laundromat

What kind of community or country can't provide seating for its people? And what does that say about the society and the role of its government and who it serves?


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