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Making Benches Work

This article has been adapted from the September 2016 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. Through its pursuit of key issues, trends, and personalities, the magazine advances American parks, recreation, and conservation efforts. You can read the full-length article here.

This is the second post in a three-part series on park benches. Read the first post here.

When faced with citizen complaints and potential bench misuse, what are cities to do? Are park agencies simply doomed to be pummeled by anti-bench complainers and to then be criticized by outraged bench-lovers and park-lingerers when they remove the “problem”? Some cities have succeeded in saving their benches and maintaining parks that are safe and enjoyable for all, but it certainly requires creativity and resourcefulness, and no two cases are alike.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, when Baltimore’s Patterson Park faced the problem of inappropriate use of benches, they were steadily removed until none were left. This supposed fix didn’t actually meet park users’ needs; to the contrary, when users were asked in a 1995 survey what would make a “big improvement” in the park, 56 percent said more benches. Now, with the revived park getting much more visitation, the benches are gradually being brought back. The benefits are striking, according to Jennifer Robinson, director of Friends of Patterson Park. Patrons spend more time in the park, she says, and some are even putting the benches to use for strength-building. (That idea isn’t unusual; there is even an exercise book, 101 Things to Do on a Park Bench.”)  Not only did removing benches fail to fix the park’s problems, it actually did the exact opposite. Robinson feels strongly that the new benches were a factor in the park’s comeback.

But more isn’t all.

“Benches have to be located thoughtfully,” Robinson says. “They have to make sense with the flow of the park.” This means in areas of high activity (such as near playgrounds or sports fields), along pathways, and just inside park entrances. Putting them in well-trafficked areas helps ensure that they are used properly. There are now about 30 benches in Patterson Park – not enough, but an improvement.

benches along pathway.jpg

Benches thoughtfully located along a park pathway. Photo credit: Flickr user Pawel Pacholec.

The director of the Kansas City Parks Department, Mark McHenry, is even more explicit when he thinks about users’ needs, saying “Any feature that is traditionally put in a park, you’re going to want a bench to go with it.” In particular, he cites the need at dog parks (for owners to socialize), playgrounds (ditto, not to mention the quick snack or diaper change), and sports fields or courts.

In Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Commons, benches were removed from the central promenade because the community took issue with the noise and commotion that seemed to always hover around them. But the problem may have been more due to layout. With the benches directly facing each other across the pathway, groups often gathered on each side, talking loudly across the distance and making walkers feel threatened and uncomfortable. But the loss from the removal was keenly felt, and a new master plan calls for their restoration – this time in a new, staggered configuration that hopefully addresses the problem.

In the case of Norfolk, where many benches were removed from three different parks because of crime, the city first thinned the surrounding landscape, hoping that would solve the problem. In order to prevent sleeping, some places purchase (or retrofit) benches with obtrusive armrests at appropriate intervals. Both approaches can help, although the only true fix comes from a culture of heavy use, proper utilization, and the awareness that there are eyes on the park – including, every now and then, the eyes of rule-enforcing authority.

April’s Frontline Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Baltimore, MD
Patterson Park is one of the oldest parks in Baltimore, but an urban renewal campaign and devoted community groups are giving it new life.  Since 1827, when William Patterson donated the first six acres to the city of Baltimore, the park has expanded to more than 135 acres and serves as the only green space available to residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

Patterson Park1INTIn the 1970s and 1980s, both the park and neighborhood fell into decline.  Theft, vandalism, and drug dealing were rampant.  Several attempts to save the park were started and then abandoned.  Patterson Park’s fortunes began to change in the early 1990s with the creation of a stable, active organization called the Friends of Patterson Park, which got to work on restoring and improving the park amenities and structures that had fallen into disrepair.  Site furnishings in the park were manufactured by DuMor, Inc.

Patterson Park 2INTIn addition to fundraising and forming partnerships, the Friends of Patterson Park have been very effective in community outreach, particularly with the growing Hispanic community around the park.  Outreach to this population has resulted in increased participation in FPP programs and events, as well as additional volunteers and support. In 2009, FPP’s Katie Long – Program Director and Hispanic Liaison – paved the way for the formation of the Friends Consejo Hispano. The Consejo was formed to provide input and ideas for park programs, encourage the community’s participation in the park, and produce the new annual Día del Niño event, which attracts over 1,000 participants.

The Consejo provides the opportunity for leadership and empowerment of the local Latino community, resulting in park projects and programs that bridge cultural and language barriers in one of Baltimore’s most diverse neighborhoods. Programs range from park stewardship work (cleaning playgrounds) to tamale and pinata making classes, to Dia del Nino and other special events that attract people from all cultures and socio-economic levels.

For more information on Patterson Park and the Consejo Hispano, please visit:

Friends of Patterson Park

Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.