I am a people watcher. As a native New Yorker, I’m positive it’s in my blood. I’m sure most city dwellers get pleasure from the simple act of observing other people, although I never stopped to think about what makes this urban exercise so much better: street furniture.
I also did not realize how complicated it is to get these amenities right.
The furniture items are benches and chairs, and also trash receptacles, tables, umbrellas, transit shelters, planters, signs, smoking receptacles and lighting fixtures. Their creators must balance aesthetics (they are designers after all) with practicality and usability. This is the topic and mission of Site Furnishings: A Complete Guide to the Planning, Selection, and Use of Landscape Furniture and Amenities by Bill Main and Gail Greet Hannah.
Starting with a single, Yogi Berra-type quote from pioneering people watcher and sociologist William H. Whyte – “People tend to sit where there are places to sit” – the 250-page book goes on to describe all aspects of the process to develop a landscape with the proper amenities. Without landscape amenities, places would not have the character and more importantly the usability that many of us take for granted. Of course, there are different measures of the success of a place – “Teenagers looking for a space to hang out have different needs than do office workers looking for a place to set up a laptop,” the authors write – and different amenities serve different purposes. But most spaces are called upon to serve the full spectrum of the general public, young, old and middle-aged included.
Much of the book is focused on how key components of public spaces dictate the design and arrangement of fixtures. Designers must work around central objects, anticipate programmed activities, and consider the sun in the placement of landscape amenities. (Sitting places for summertime lunch need shade, while other spots might offer full sunshine for those cool, low-sun-angle fall and winter days.) Because it is difficult to create these places in the landscape itself, it’s all in the amenities. (A later chapter discusses materials and installation methods.)
But it is the management of these amenities and their spaces that is key. Even the world’s most beautiful plazas and parks get run down – some of them much sooner than they should. The book goes over maintenance, the control of skateboarders (by installing small stainless steel knobs in stone seat walls), keeping “undesirables” moving, and providing general safety for citizens. But one chapter was not enough; the topic deserves more in-depth coverage. Moreover, the main management case study, Bryant Park in New York City, is extraordinarily well-funded but perhaps not an example that is easily replicated across the country.
Despite that shortcoming, the book is admirably specific and in-depth. It serves as a reference to the design professional, yet it maintains a language that is accessible to the public. And it may help answer the question of why I find some spaces so great – and others so terrible – for people watching.