Public benches essential for health and wellbeing

Michael Grant sitting in General Gordon Square, Woolwich, London

Hanging out on public benches should be recognised as essential for mental health and social wellbeing and should not be viewed as unwelcome lingering or potential anti-social behaviour, according to new research published by the University of Sheffield and The Young Foundation.

Researchers in the University’s Department of Landscape and at the London-based think tank, found that sitting on benches allows people to spend longer outside, which is both beneficial for mental health and allows people to connect with others in their community. This is particularly important for people who may find cafes too expensive or are maginalised from other collective environments, such as work or education.

The findings are part of the Bench Project – a collaboration between the University’s Department of Landscape and The Young Foundation with Sheffield Hallam University, The University of Sussex and Greenwich Inclusion Project – which investigated the use of public spaces in two different London neighbourhoods - Woolwich and Sutton.

The researchers found that access to public benches was beneficial for physical health, as they can provide resting places for those with limited mobility. They also provide places to sit for people who want to meet in large groups, for example teenagers after school, and a space for people who are not in work or education to sit outside and watch the world go by – combatting loneliness and isolation.

The project addressed concerns that hostile architecture – the use of deliberately uncomfortable seating - is being used to dissuade people from meeting in public spaces. And while the traditional park bench – wooden slats, metal arms – is strong on comfort, it’s less flexible as a meeting place for many people who enjoy gathering in larger groups.

They also argue that what is considered to be ‘anti-social behaviour’ around benches is often simply ‘differently-social’. While violent or hate crime should be actively addressed, this should not be at the expense of bench provision or the quality of the public space.

People should be encouraged to use benches through good planning, design and management of spaces. Good visibility, open space, zoned quiet and noisy areas and high pedestrian movement should be used to help people feel safe.

The project, which was funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, has produced an 18-minute documentary, titled ‘Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches’ which will be premiered Woolwich and Sutton in November. Directed by Esther Johnson, the film shows the daily rhythms of life in the two locations.

Clare Rishbeth, from the University’s Department of Landscape and the project’s Principal Investigator, said: “It is hearting to find how sitting outside can improve quality of life for many people, and underlines the importance of socially aware design of both benches and public space”.

Radhika Bynon, from the Young Foundation, said: “Benches are egalitarian, and the current trend of removing them and cities damages community life. Our research found that benches help people to feel a sense of belonging to an area, and helps to combat loneliness and isolation."

Read the final report: Benches for everyone, Solitude in public, sociability for free.

The Manifesto for the Good Bench

This work is part of the Faculty of Social Science's Wellbeing & the Life Course research theme