Greater Greater Washington

Have a seat: DC needs more benches

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) held it's annual conference in Washington this weekend. ASLA invited GGW to attend.

At a panel on site furnishings (park benches, tables, etc.) one of the presenters described walking in Washington as "exhausting" due to the long distances and, more importantly, the lack of benches.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Indeed the city was designed to incorporate grand, lengthy vistas. The most famous vista is the Mall, which is dotted with benches. The rest of downtown, however, is another story. Some buildings have installed benches as part of their overall public space requirements, but that's hardly a rational way to provide public seating downtown.

Though some people will inevitably monopolize benches and camp out on them, it's important to recognize the benefits of benches. As pedestrian as benches can seem, they support positive lingering and contribute to street life. Tourists have places to sit and read maps. Office workers have places to eat lunch. Bus riders have places to wait. Everyone else has a comfortable point for relaxation or a rendezvous.

The District should develop a plan for installing (and eventually maintaining) public benches. Obviously the city cannot afford right now to install benches everywhere, but we can at least start identifying areas near metro entrances, blocks with several restaurants, streets in shopping districts, and any place where crowds stroll along. We can roll out the benches over several years, prioritizing the areas where they are most needed.

Benches don't have to be boring, either. Take a look at these benches installed a few years ago along Wisconsin Avenue in Friendship Heights, DC.


Photo by the author.
Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 

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I am all for more benches, provided they have some feature to prevent the homeless from using them as beds. A simple armrest down the middle will do the trick. The city already spends millions on beds for the homeless, in shelters. They don't need to spend another dollar providing the homeless places to sleep the day away in our parks.

by urbaner@hotmail.com on Sep 14, 2010 12:00 pm • linkreport

Different issue I guess, but why are there so few benches in metro stations? My boyfriend is temporariy disabled and has given up on metro entirely until he is more recovered. Not being able to sit while waiting for a train (let alone on the train) was one of the problems.

by Ren on Sep 14, 2010 12:02 pm • linkreport

I am not worried about homeless using them as beds. I am far more concerned when I see them using them as toilets. New rule of thumb: do not sit on benches.

by charlie on Sep 14, 2010 12:03 pm • linkreport

Ditto Ren. I don't understand why we don't just line the entire wall of every Metro platform with a continuous bench.

by BeyondDC on Sep 14, 2010 12:06 pm • linkreport

@urbaner Maybe instead of investing time and energy into stopping homeless people from sleeping on benches we should try to prevent/help people recover from homelessness.

by Adam on Sep 14, 2010 12:11 pm • linkreport

@urbaner Maybe instead of investing time and energy into stopping homeless people from sleeping on benches we should try to prevent/help people recover from homelessness.

Yup. File this under "It's too bad some folks won't let us have nice shit."

We can either have benches, or not have loitering laws. We can't have both.

Maybe instead of investing time and energy into stopping homeless people from sleeping on benches we should try to prevent/help people recover from homelessness.

Totally agree with this. Though I'm not sure if you've spent any time in an urban environment, or have ever met an actual homeless person, but 9 times out of 10, they're bat-shit crazy. Unfortunately, we're not allowed to forcibly institutionalize crazy people anymore. So we just let them slowly kill themselves on the streets instead, all while destroying our public spaces.

by oboe on Sep 14, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

I vaguely remember DDOT suggesting the installation of more benches as streetscaping in a few downtown places and area businesses shooting down that idea b/c they didn't want them turning into homeless camps.

by Fritz on Sep 14, 2010 12:20 pm • linkreport

That goes double for public restrooms. Most of the parks downtown used to have them until the 1950s, when they became hotbeds for rough trade and semi-permanent homeless residences. If they had more benches, at least maybe MLK Library wouldn't be so full of homeless people.

by monkeyrotica on Sep 14, 2010 12:21 pm • linkreport

Adding on to this, I think the District needs more water fountains. The mall area and the reflecting pool area have a decent amount of fountains, although they don't all work, but once you get off the mall they are very few and far-between. Rock Creek Park, the Mount Vernon Trail, the C&O Canal, and the Crescent Trail are all areas that I frequent as a runner and occasional biker, and water fountains along these routes are nearly non-existent. Most regular runners/walkers/bikers along here know to bring their own water, but I often see visitors, tourists, or others along these routes as well.

by Kathy on Sep 14, 2010 12:25 pm • linkreport

we're not allowed to forcibly institutionalize crazy people anymore.

Not true, if they are a danger to themseles or others. We call the institutions "jails" and "prisons." We used to have "mental institutions" but there was a de-institutionalization movement in the 60s and 70s in favor of group homes and other kinder, gentler (and more cost-effective) alternatives. But shortly after Reagan took office, group homes and other community mental health rograms were defunded and have not recovered. I watched a number of friends and acquaintances during that time forced into the streets (because they cannot manage their lives without support) and end up in jail because of it.

by Daddy Love on Sep 14, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

@monkeyrotic -I don't know, just asking -could the public fountains have been removed because they were going to be intergrated? DC was a segregated city.

by Tina Jones on Sep 14, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

I would like to say something nice about the Park Service: the low stone wall around the Washington Monument has turned into a nice place for people to sit.

And note the benches circling around the base of the Monument: they are convex, another method of discouraging folks from sleeping there.

by M.V. Jantzen on Sep 14, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

Ditto what Kathy said. Keeping the existing ones working seems to be enough of a chore. Many of the water fountains in Capitol Hill parks are broken...Lincoln Park, I'm looking at you and your 0/3 water fountain functionality score.

by DCCT on Sep 14, 2010 12:46 pm • linkreport

I was just thinking about this the other day---it only appears that the homeless are occupying all the benches (and that they will continue to occupy any and all future benches) because there are *just so few* benches available.

Sure, the first additional bench built will be occupied as will the next, but how long will it take before the number of benches outnumber the number of homeless and this seemingly intractable problem is solved through brute force?1000 additional benches at a cost of $1 Million?

Whatever it is, it's within the realm of financial possibility, and if all else fails we can always make people pay for them, just like in Communist China:
http://web.orange.co.uk/article/quirkies/New_benches_are_a_pain_in_the

by mattxmal on Sep 14, 2010 12:54 pm • linkreport

The war on sitting is hardly isolated to DC.

by andrew on Sep 14, 2010 12:57 pm • linkreport

Some benches are victims of official vandalism.

When ex-Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose was introduced as the member of the Town Square Task Force team, she proudly announced that she had gotten the benches removed from the triangle park kitty-corner from Eastern Market Metro plaza.

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=1304

IIRC, when Marisa Scalera, the landscape architect for the Town Square Task Force got up to speak, she kicked things off by saying, "With all due respect to Councilmember Ambrose, the first thing we'll recommend is replacing the benches in that park."

If the Mayor puts benches in the park, LEAVE THE DAMN BENCHES IN THE PARK, people. I gots to have a place to sit down.

by Trulee Pist on Sep 14, 2010 1:23 pm • linkreport

^^^ Ouch. Those things look medieval. Don't those spikes and jags make a public safety hazard?

by smoke_jaguar4 on Sep 14, 2010 1:25 pm • linkreport

@andrew - thanks for the link to the anti-sit site and photos.

by Tina Jones on Sep 14, 2010 1:26 pm • linkreport

@andrew:

more war on sitting, at least for too long. Heck, a great way to raise revenue for building more benches.

by Michael on Sep 14, 2010 1:30 pm • linkreport

If the Mayor puts benches in the park, LEAVE THE DAMN BENCHES IN THE PARK, people. I gots to have a place to sit down.

One of my good friends has tried to take her kid to the neighborhood playground in Columbia Heights, but the amount of drinking, puking, pissing and defecating in that park pretty much made it unusable.

So how about this deal:

Put benches in the park. Step up police presence. If you appear to be intoxicated, and you're in the park, you're consenting to a breathalyzer test. If you blow over the legal limit, they put you in the pokey, drive you downtown, and shove an Antabuse suppository up your ass.

by oboe on Sep 14, 2010 1:31 pm • linkreport

@oboe: What's the legal limit for sitting on a bench?

by HM on Sep 14, 2010 2:22 pm • linkreport

Let's say .2, just to make it a round number. Of course, the question's irrelevant unless you're pinching a dookie by the teeter-totters.

by oboe on Sep 14, 2010 2:34 pm • linkreport

Remember that Boomsday is coming! An aging population is going to need more benches, especially if they choose to live in walkable urbanism.

by Andrew D on Sep 14, 2010 3:06 pm • linkreport

Florida Park has plenty of benches, too bad they are all occupied in the same manor as oboe described.

by ms on Sep 14, 2010 4:53 pm • linkreport

Cruel and vapid commenters cheering on imprisonment and of homeless people for the crime of defecation may not fully understand what being homeless actually entails; i.e. the nonownership of a private restroom, nor the cash flow to consistently rent one.

by cruella de ville on Sep 14, 2010 5:47 pm • linkreport

Funny you should mention this. The District apparently removed several benches outside the Warner Theater near 13th and E over Labor Day weekend, presumably because of the growing homeless population that was setting up shop there.

Not sure how that process goes about, but in the days leading up to the removal, I noticed the crowd of homeless had multiplied and they were starting to get rowdy/disruptive, so I wasn't surprised to see the benches gone after Labor Day. In fact, my first thought when I saw people starting to accumulate there was "If we remove these benches, they will probably gather somewhere else."

So, I think it's safe to say that D.C.'s approach to its homeless problem is simply that--to make it as uncomfortable as possible for homeless to gather on the street corners.

by Warner on Sep 14, 2010 6:11 pm • linkreport

DDOT skipped the opportunity to provide benches in their redo of 17th Street, NW, especially around the corner of 17th and Corcoran. If even progress DDOT backs down, what is the chance we can actually get this to happen?

by David on Sep 14, 2010 6:48 pm • linkreport

+1 cruella

And exactly when did proof of fixed address become a qualification for the right to sit on a bench?

Wanna know a secret? There are a few incidents of public defecation, puking, drunkeness and unruliness, and lots and lots and lots of people either (a.) making sh*t up, or (b.) not liking the looks of their neighbor sitting on that bench, and wanting them out of there, even though their only crime is sitting on a bench.

(There are laws against public defecation, public drunkeness and disturbing the peace. See something, say something, but leave my bench in my park.)

I want to sit on a bench in the park, too. Don't take away my bench because you don't like the looks of that other person sitting on the bench.

by Trulee Pist on Sep 14, 2010 6:53 pm • linkreport

DC has got to be the most bench-unfriendly city in the country.

The metro is even worse. 15 minute headways, trains that can hold 700, and benches for 6 people? Really?

by JJJJJ on Sep 14, 2010 7:40 pm • linkreport

2 things:

1. Homeless people as a reason not to install benches? I like the idea of having an armrest in the middle of them if you really consider this to be a problem. Benches like the one in the Farragut North bus stop would also work (high, narrow, and curved...not the most comfortable to sit on, but more relaxing than standing), but they would have to be bigger (only, like, 2 people can fit on that bench, and I really don't need a family of tourists sitting on 3 or 4 separate benches yelling at each other).

2. And how about people "hogging" the few benches Metro does have? I'm lucky to live at a Metro station that has more benches than most. I can't abide the people who sit in the middle of them with one bag on each side, and then scoff at you if you have the audacity to sit next to them. Yes, DC has some "personal space" issues where we tend to stand/sit further from people than just about anywhere else. But seriously, you don't get the whole bench!

by Ms. D on Sep 15, 2010 12:26 am • linkreport

Benches = homeless sleeping? Are you nuts? The grass is way more comfortable than a bench. I've slept in luggage racks and would have taken a plot of grass over that any day.

More benches means more benches available. I could use one by the bus stop outside me building, so people have somewhere to sit while waiting for the bus. Now I personally could just sit on the curb and not give a damn, but that lane on my street segues into a hotel on the other side of the intersection and clueless tourists always seem a bit too close to the curb for my comfort.

by copperred on Sep 15, 2010 2:02 am • linkreport

Benches = homeless sleeping? Are you nuts? The grass is way more comfortable than a bench.

You might have a compelling point, if not for the fact that bench-sleeping homeless and various types of alcoholics is one of the most common sights encountered by anyone who's ever spent time in an urban environment.

What's next? "Liquor in a brown paper bag? Are you nuts?" Or maybe "People stealing trash cans? Are you nuts?"

As Galileo is rumored to have said, E pur si muove.

by oboe on Sep 15, 2010 9:03 am • linkreport

I like the design of the benches in the new Metro bus shelters. The seat portion is rounded and more narrow than usual. It also had dividers seperating folks from their neighbors. Comfortable enough to wait for a bus, but discourages sitting there for hours on end. I've never seen anyone sleep on the new benches. Also the rain just rolls off. Kudos to a good design!

by Tour guide on Sep 15, 2010 9:01 pm • linkreport

Also benches are needed by older people, many who have slowed down and would like a place to rest, especially in my very hilly neighborhood in DC. DC Department of Recreation has a bench donation program for parks where private individuals and organizations can donate benches and DC Recreation will install and maintain them, but this is only in parks. I would like to see DDOT have a bench donation program for public space along streets. The city of Saratoga Springs accepts bench donations. The city has a standard price for donating a bench which includes cost of bench and installation. The check comes to the city and they purchase and install the bench. Does anybody else have any other ideas about how to go about this?
Marlene

by Marlene Berlin on Sep 16, 2010 11:04 am • linkreport

Excellent idea, Marlene! DDOT is currently considering letting businesses fund bike racks to be installed near their businesses. The sponsoring business would get to choose from a variety of designs the bench that best suits its type of business. A pizzeria, for instance, might fund a rack with an embedded pizza motif.

For benches, we could do something similar, or just provide the sponsor with a small, tasteful plaque. We'd probably want to avoid anything gaudy.

Another source of funding for installation and/or maintenance might be the local business improvement districts (BIDs). They have the money and the desire to keep their respective jurisdictions tidy and welcoming.

by Eric Fidler on Sep 16, 2010 6:47 pm • linkreport

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