Rue Principale, a few years ago, received quite a facelift: they removed the telephone polls, widened the sidewalks, introduced sidewalk bulges and narrowed the lanes. As I mentioned in the first post, the street’s businesses are also contributing to its liveliness through renovations of façades and their mere presence. Principale has really become the place to be in Aylmer… but there’s something missing:
places to sit.
Benches are important for many reasons, but the main one is that it’s virtuous circle: people like to observe life on the street, and the more people sitting, the more life it attracts, which incites people to sit and observe streetlife. It seems like a small little detail, but it’s very important to make a place not only somewhere to go, but somewhere to stay: a place to rest, to have conversation, to take your time, check your phone, read a book… It just makes the street a more comfortable place.
In the case of Principale, this could be done quite easily: the sidewalk bulges that separate parking from perpendicular streets have a lot of space which could easily accommodate a bench or two, the green buffer between the sidewalk and the street could also serve as a location for a discreet bench. Even private proprieties bordering the sidewalk can be encouraged to install their very own seating with the help and potential subsidies of the city.
However, as with most things, you have to do it well if you want it to work best: the ideal place for a bench is a place which is shaded in the Summer and sunny in the Winter, in plain view but not in the way and you want it to look onto something interesting: no one wants to look at a dead wall for 5 minutes. Put it near a shop, across the street from a mural, a nice view or someplace lively.
And these benches shouldn’t just be put on main streets, but also be sprinkled onto residential blocks: it encourages people to take walks and it populate the streets of the neighbourhoods, making them friendly and more secure places since people both seek the presence of others and fear their judgement if they do something out of the ordinary. This is why people pick their noses when they think no one is around, but will refrain themselves on a crowded street (oh, come on. Let’s not pretend none of us have ever picked our noses. We’re all adults here).
And though some may still worry about vandalism, it really isn’t as if a bench is a million-dollar investment anyway: a bare-bones wooden bench can cost as little as $30 and are easily replaced, if not fixed or repainted. And we can go even further than that: if you make a street proud of its bench by involving it in its placement and permitting its decoration, it can, to a certain extent, police itself.
So here’s my suggestion to the city:
- Populate city streets with benches and place them well (unlike they seem to usually do with pedestrian infrastructure, a rant for another time). For streets with a significant residential population, involve them in the placement and selection of a bench and give them the freedom to make it their own.
- Start a programme to give or subsidise benches for private owners so that they put it on the street: people can apply for a bench or a partial refund of a bench as long as it’s to be used by the public. If it isn’t, give the city the power to take the bench back or take back the subsidy.
- Sit back and enjoy life.