In Praise of Seating

Paco Underhill, the author of Why We Buy, contends that seating is perhaps the major issue in the design and furnishing of public spaces. He’s pretty passionate about it:

I love seating. I could talk about it all day. If you’re discussing anything having to do with the needs of human beings, you have to address seating. Air, food, water, shelter, seating — in that order. Before money. Before love. Seating. In the majority of stores throughout the world, sales would instantly be increased by the addition of one chair. I’d rip out a fixture. I’d kill a mannequin. A chair says: We care.

There’s a particularly satisfying example of the importance of airport seating from John Thackara’s In the Bubble:

Jan Benthem, who with his partner Mels Crouwel is the master architect of Schipol, told me with glee about the time when the commercial people insisted an area of seating be removed to make way for a row of shops. The result was the opposite of that intended: Revenues per square meter in the new shops, and in existing ones next to them, actually decreased after the redesign, which, as it happened, had created a kind of canyon through which passengers rushed like white water in the Rocky Mountains; too fast to stop and shop. The seats were put back.

William Whyte puts it very simply in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, his classic study of plazas in New York City:

People tend to sit most where there are places to sit.

This may not strike you as an intellectual bombshell, and, now that I look back on our study, I wonder why it was not more apparent to us from the beginning. Sitting space, to be sure, is only one of the many variables, and, without a control situation as a measure, one cannot be sure of cause and effect. But sitting space is most certainly prerequisite. The most attractive fountains, the most striking designs, cannot induce people to come and sit if there is no place to sit.

He concludes that people will sit almost anywhere between a height of one foot and three. Ledges should be at least 30 inches deep, and preferably 36 inches so people can sit on either side. Stairs can also provide flexible seating arrangements, but he has nothing but contempt for benches:

Benches are artifacts the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. They’re not so good for sitting. There are too few of them; they are too small; they are often isolated from other benches or from whatever action there is on the plaza. Social distance is a subtle measure, ever changing, and the distances of fixed seats do not change, which is why they are rarely quite right for anybody.

Dan Lockton shares some examples in which municipalities go out of their way to make public seating unpleasant:

While from a very narrow specification point-of-view ‘they do their job,’ what utter contempt for users these two seating examples demonstrate! The benches on Cornmarket Street are clearly intended to prevent anyone lying down on them (armrests, small radius of curvature) or indeed sitting for very long at all in comfort (height off the ground, vertical backrest, small radius of curvature). Why despise the public so much?

Some places fail to provide seating at all. That doesn’t necessarily keep people from sitting, it just forces them to improvise. Back to Paco Underhill again:

In the casino hotels of Atlantic City, New Jersey, where kindness is, shall we say, not extensively idealized, you see lots of people who have wagered but lost but must linger until their tour buses depart. The casinos, for obvious reason, wish these people would wait in the gaming area, parked in front of a slot machine or a dealer. To encourage that, there are no chairs in the hotel lobbies. How do the visitors respond? They sit glumly on the floors, dozens and dozens of sour-faced losers in a row, not a sight that evokes the opulent gaming ambience of Monte Carlo for the incoming suckers. These people need chairs!

Bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders are probably the best examples of how ambiance can be improved by the simple addition of comfortable chairs. Every now and then I venture into a Waldenbooks and it feels practically archaic. More and more places are starting to catch on. There’s a new mall in San Francisco with much of the fourth floor completely devoted to luxurious seating. It’s always bustling with activity.

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