18 November 2020

The positive effects of benches in public spaces

Dr Clare Rishbeth's research into the use of benches gave her the title of the UK’s expert on benches. This week, she featured on the BBC One Show, as the programme considered the removal of benches in some cities in the UK.

The Bench Project, Image © Esther Johnson
The Bench Project explored the use of benches in public spaces. Image © Esther Johnson

Clare's research, The Bench Project, began in 2014 when ‘hostile architecture’ – like the spikes fitted to prevent homeless people from sleeping in certain spaces – were gaining attention in the media and there was a surge of benches being removed from public spaces. 

‘While the BBC have noticed this occurring recently, we know that the removal of benches has been happening for years,’ she said. ‘However the covid-19 pandemic means that we’ve seen it in different ways, with benches and outdoor seating also being temporarily taped off as part of measures to prevent the virus spreading.

‘What lockdown has done is made people more aware that spending time outside is really important and a valued way to spend time. This is not only a small inconvenience. From our research, we found that spending time outdoors and in public spaces is most important for many people who have  problematic or tricky home situations. They might be caring for someone, they might be out of work, their homes may be overcrowded, and they feel they don’t want to or can’t be at home all the time.’ 

But where does this fit into the discussion of removing benches? Dr Rishbeth’s leading argument in The Bench Project is that if urban spaces are designed to be used by a wide range of local people, then these need to include places to sit. 


There’s a civic quality to benches, in that they are paid for by someone else, for anyone to sit on. They are free for all, regardless of who you are.

Dr Clare Rishbeth

Senior Lecturer, Department of Landscape Architecture


‘There has been a lot of emphasis on creating ‘walkable cities’ in recent years, with the idea that you can explore large parts of a city on foot. But most people don’t want to walk around for hours and not sit down, and for many people, it isn’t physically possible. 

‘Nearly everybody has a story of a person they know who has to plan where and when they’ll need to sit down when they are out and about, whether they are elderly or have mobility issues. And so it’s important for people to have somewhere they know they can sit down if they need to, without having to wait in queues or spend money in coffee shops and cafes.

‘So I would say that if you’re going to have a ‘walkable city’, you also need a sittable city. That’s why benches are important.’

There’s a civic quality to benches, in that they are paid for by someone else, for anyone to sit on. They are free for all, regardless of who you are. Sitting on benches ‘enables a flexible and undemanding way to enjoy public life,’ as Dr Rishbeth’s research paper claims.

Clare Rishbeth being filmed in her garden for the BBC One Show
Dr Clare Rishbeth being filmed for the BBC One Show where she discussed her research into the use of benches

‘I think it’s an interesting dynamic to public life. If you’re on a bench, then you’re on a bench. That’s your right and nobody can really move you on unless you happen to be breaking another by-law, so I think there’s a real generosity to providing benches,’ said Clare. 

The Bench Project, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, focused on two case study sites; Gordon Square in Woolwich and St Helier Open Space in Sutton. Dr Rishbeth and the team, including partners fromThe Young Foundation, Greenwich Inclusion Project, filmmaker Esther Johnson and geographer Ben Rogaly, spoke to people using benches and outdoor spaces in these locations, undertaking ethnographic research and making a film. 

‘Having the enjoyment of sitting outside and feeling like you’re in nature really came through in our findings,’ Dr Rishbeth said. ‘It was interesting that people loved watching people, but they also just loved being outside. Many of them talked about the mental health aspects, that they sat outside because it was good for their health. 

‘There were people in quite tough situations who would spend four hours or so in the square, because the alternative was being at home, and they didn’t want to be alone all day or just watch TV. Alongside them, you had people passing by or spending a short time having a sandwich, a smoke or to check their phones. 

‘It became clear that spending time outdoors made people feel like they were part of that place and that local community. Imagine someone is living in sheltered accommodation, or maybe they care for other adults or children at home. Those people might feel invisible in their day to day lives, but they can then go outside and be part of something, and an equal part of it.’


We wanted to give landscape architects the ability to evidence why seating is important, and to successfully argue that it’s not a whimsical thing. Now, we can actually illustrate the wellbeing aspects, and that’s underpinned by research.

Dr Clare Rishbeth

Senior Lecturer, Department of Landscape Architecture


One of the biggest discussions around benches and public spaces is anti-social behaviour and who is a legitimate bench user. The Bench Project found that policies and actions that respond to certain groups of public space users as problematic like young people and people drinking is at odds with understandings of mental, physical and social wellbeing, which show many benefits to being outdoors and spending time with friends.

‘Is it OK to sit on a bench for four hours? Is it ok for teenagers to hang around benches?’ Clare asks. ‘It’s a very undemanding way to spend time outside. When tension is created around anti-social behaviour, it’s often when there is a very small seating offer and those seats get ‘taken over’ by teenagers or people drinking. The seating is then sometimes taken out and others are unable to make use of that space. Whereas if you have more seating, like in Gordon Square in Woolwich, there is space for everyone and people can then choose where they would want to sit. They might choose to not sit next to someone who was smoking or next to the noisy teenagers. So if there are enough options, it becomes inclusive to all.’

The aim of the project was to change perceptions and influence agendas regarding public health, social experiences of living in city neighbourhoods, combating loneliness and isolation, design of public spaces, community safety and policing, supporting participation of elderly and young residents, and addressing hate crime and harassment. 

‘We wanted to give landscape architects the ability to evidence why seating is important, and to successfully argue that it’s not a whimsical thing. Now, we can actually illustrate the wellbeing aspects, and that’s underpinned by research. 

‘We’re always teaching our students about inclusivity and designing sociable public space, and yet clients are sometimes nervous about benches, because they don’t want drunk people or teenagers hanging around. They seem to want places to be sociable, but not too sociable. This project shows them how invaluable it is to give people the chance to stay longer in outdoor spaces.’

Find out more about The Bench Project and catch Clare on BBC’s The One Show on BBC iPlayer.