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The Benchmark – A Smart Bench That Teaches Cities About the Public Space

By making smart benches, we learn a lot from the use of public space. Here’s an example from Groningen, the Netherlands.

When designing public spaces, there are always a few basic elements we include. Some greenery, several benches to rest and sit, and hopefully some playful elements. In the best case scenario, cities also involve users when planning public spaces. But then the participation is over, as people are hardly ever asked about the public space when the project is done. With the benchmark-project, we turned it around.

Seating is one of the most important features of a public space. It provides a place for the elderly to rest, facilitate more mobility in the neighborhood, and creates a place for users to observe and meet others. It has a positive effect on the experience and liveliness of shopping streets, squares, and playgrounds. Sadly, there is very little knowledge about how to place and design benches and other sitting facilities.

Therefore we decided to learn more about seating and how they impact public spaces. We used modern technology to do what normally would have required days of manual observations and called it: The Benchmark.

This Benchmark is a smart bench. With the implementation of sensors, it continually measures the use of the bench. On every location. That’s how we measure if the bench works and how it is used. The implemented QR-code redirects users to a questionnaire where they are able to give their opinion about the bench and public seating in general.

Example

The first experiment was done in the city of Groningen where they are working hard on giving the city a complete facelift. The citizens, tourists and shop owners would like to see a city with more green and… more seating. The inner city provides lots of opportunities for placing benches, so it’s important to make decisions that fit the user. Therefore you need to know when, how and why they are used. The Benchmark-project answered these questions by providing public seating on a different location every week. The bench gives information about when and how the bench is used and the qualitative research told us why and how to improve the city center.

Images by: Tom van Huisstede

What did we learn?

We learned that simple interventions such as placing a bench can change a space into a place. By linking seating to existing walking routes, busy hotspots or spaces that are quiet and peaceful, you are able to create an environment where people can rest, eat, talk, meet, love and enjoy. In busy places the seating was short but very frequent, quiet places are enjoyed less frequent, but much longer. The bench made the overall demand for seating visible.
The exact location is crucial for whether or not a bench is used, the design of the bench itself is very important if you want to create seating for all and we learned that a some of the current benches are placed in wrong places.

Conclusion

We gathered a lot of detailed information with a simple experiment. An experiment that seriously helps with creating better public space and provides a clear insight into how benches work in day to day life. It allows us to create an inclusive public space of a high level that fits the demands of its users. And it helps with creating more life and love on the streets of your city!

Main picture by Karen Gillis.

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