Could the city actually install benches ?

This is another post building more detail on the original Downtown Moves series in

While health and fitness naggards complain we sit too much, everyone wants to sit sometimes. I love to walk to places in my west side neighborhood, and walk into the core at least three times a week in the winter. (In the summer, I bike many of these trips, plus my travel zone expands…).

Twenty years ago, most shopping malls had few benches in the mall area. Those that were there were to catch collapsing shoppers before they hit the deck. But there seemed to be a fear that undesirable people would sit there — you know, non-shoppers, or teenagers, or name-your-fear.

lively mall space with piazza-like centre café seating. Photo courtesy J Bond.

One of the most delightful changes in the last decades has been the renewed focus on seats in malls. The Rideau Centre has some, arranged in conversational groupings. Wa-a-a-a-y more impressive is Carlingwood Mall, which has rows of soft plush seats, almost living rooms, repeated over and over the length of the mall. And their food courts are pushed right out there into central focus too. The mall at Carlingwood has the features of a succesful European plaza – places to shop, to eat and drink, to linger, to run into friends. I suspect people go there just because it is busy looking, and they can be busy looking at other people.

(I tried to take a pic of the Mall to illustrate this post, but security ran up, all blustering about how it is “illegal” to take pic in the mall. I ran into the same problem at World Exchange Plaza, which has some nice seating clusters too, but you aren’t allowed to see them…. The rule does give Mall Cops something to bully about).

So we do know what to do to make a succesful gathering place. We have examples right here in Ottawa. Want another one? I was going through Place d’Orleans and sought out the WC. They have converted a storefront into a gorgeous airport-style WC with generous spaces, sofas to wait for the other party (girls are so slow…). It was clean and attractive.

You’ll never find that on downtown streets!

But savvy marketers know it. You’ll find similar arrangements at private places where someone wants people to gather. Such as amusement parks. Or resorts. Or condo sales offices, where the builder wants to give the impression of a Place:

Domicile creates sense of public space to sell condos in Little Italy. Great initiative!

On Sparks Street there are benches. Too many are arranged in long straight rows. They discourage people from talking to each other. They are positioned to line up with buildings, they are architectural accessories rather than people-oriented. And so they sit empty. Their very emptiness seems to advertise “this is a dead space, go away!”.

To successfully make people gathering benches, we need to arrange them in groups. We need to buy benches of different lengths, so that those at right angles to the curb might fit. On the newly rebuilt Somerset Street near Preston the benches are grouped, sometimes three in a row, but only in rows. No conversation, no spontaneous interaction is possible. Yet the bench makers do make them in varying lengths, including singles. Hmm.

Could someone please give the Sparks Street Mall authority a wrench and rearrange those existing long rows of bolted-down benches into clusters?

For the Downtown Moves project, a major component of action should be improving the seating. Adding benches should be simple. All it takes some city functionary with a mandate to install more benches. Identify spot: install. But in Ottawa, I expect we’d set up a whole team of planners and engineers, who would devise lengthy criteria for ideal bench locations, and then rule out most spots as they were not ideal. The benches themselves would be selected after a lengthy public consultation process, input from the handicapped, documenting the frets of BOMA and the Bank Street BIA. Net result: one or two benches.

Instead, Downtown Moves should come up with a simple goal, like having eight benches per block, or a bench every x feet, on all downtown streets, so there are lots of benches. Order the benches first; then go out to find spots to park them. Yup, many will be on the parts of the sidewalk that extend back to private buildings. If there simply isn’t an existing spot midblock for a bench, invent one, by removing a parking space and replacing it with a short bulb out.  With all those benches already bought, the pressure would be on to find a place to put them.

Street life will then migrate to those benches. Smokers for sure will sit on the benches. If we didn’t have smokers outside, our sidewalks would be totally deserted. If any of the locations tend to attract too many loiterers, remove the problem benches. Install first; remove if necessary.

But I think our fear that someone we fear might sit on the bench is best overcome by installing hundreds of benches, as there are only so many undesirables to go around and clean upstanding citizens would then be less likely to find someone undesirable already on the bench. And yes, install them near the symbols of Ottawa’s haute cuisine à la boulevard: chip wagons.

Sparks Street is a special street, as it has so much space, so much opportunity, and so little gone right. For that street, the Authority should hop on the internet and order a few thousand of those red folding chairs that characterise Parisian spaces and now typify New York’s Broadway piazzas. They are cheap — $8 each wholesale. Spray paint the mall name and logo on the backs of the chairs and just dump them out of the shipping container in piles in May. People will relocate them to where they want them.

Ikea can get it for you - retail. The original paris park chairs wholesale for about $8


Yup, a few hundred will be stolen. Consider it advertising, since everyone seeing one in a student apartment, at a U of O residence, or in front of the Union Mission, will think “Sparks Street Mall”. Great top of mind advertising. The experience in NYC was that after two weeks, everyone that wanted to steal one had done so, and the loss rate dropped off to negligible.

And while they are at it, could the Mall order a couple of dozen tiny cafe tables too?

In mid-September, the Mall could pick up and store a hundred of the chairs. And pick up a few more in October, watching carefully to ensure that just enough are left out to be occupied and busy looking.

They might even find a few in use in January, in the mid-day sun. Hey, in Copenhagen it’s apparently a goal to take pic of people sitting out in mid-winter enjoying the sun. The Mall could even spend a bit of money, paying for the space heaters at prime hours for some north side of the Mall cafes (those in the mid-day sun). The businesses are unlikely to try the experiment (due to definite costs but unknown revenues), but the Mall authority could. 

Put out a few heaters, see who uses them. Will people buy a coffee or choco and carry it outside? Will they put away their garbage? Will this enliven the Mall? If it does, expand it. If it doesn’t, or has too many problems, then put the heaters up on Kijiji and recoup some of the costs. These are cheap experiments, probably costing less than a single conventional advertisement.

The NCC experiment with muskoka chairs on the far edge of Confederation Plaza were much photographed and used. Clocktower Pub in Westboro is installing gas heaters for long-season outdoor patio use — will they try it in mid-winter?

Will downtown Ottawa try anything at all? We could use a bit of initiative here.



Actually the bench problem reminds me of the bike post problem. The City had hundreds of parking meter posts already installed in the downtown, ready for use by cyclists. But no, they are too close to the curb, too close to the car door, etc etc (all problems we didn’t seem to know we had when they were parking meters being used to tie bikes to, but once they were to become bike racks, the design criteria escalated). Now when I walk downtown I know the cycling planners are busy by the dozens of green dots on the sidewalk painted on, crossed-off, moved over four inches, as staff exert huge efforts in determining the exact best place for a bike to park. Meanwhile, bikes park anywhere anyway.

finding that perfect spot for a bike post ...

12 thoughts on “Could the city actually install benches ?

  1. Denver has those chairs too – it was lovely being there with a group of colleagues in the winter sun, sitting in a group because we could just rearrange the chairs how we wanted!

    On the bike racks, after the Bank Street reconstruction, they never got around to putting the bike racks back up (or poles or anything) – so for that glorious month of November and December, when there were still lots of people riding, there were no racks along the length of Bank Street in the Glebe – I emailed Councillor CHernushenko’s office and was told that the contractor would put them up this year “if there was time”

    Priorities, right?

  2. I mostly agree with your posts, but not this one. Sparks St is empty most of the time, including the benches. The occasions when the benches are used are at lunch time in the summer, when the mall is crowded with people, and the benches are filled with people watchers. Conversation isn’t the point, and clumping up the street furniture just creates more islands of obstacles for pedestrians to navigate. Sparks St needs a solution, but this isn’t it.

    1. The benches are currently used only by people-watchers because, at least in part, they aren’t configured to make it easy to sit and enjoy a conversation. It doesn’t necessarily follow that there is no demand for it, or that nobody would use it this way if there were benches arranged that way.

  3. Great post, Eric! I’ll also point out that there are lots of outdoor seating areas on the Rideau Canal Skateway, which, coupled with places to get a snack and places to pop into to warm up, are a homegrown example.

  4. A couple things:
    1. I agree, I love seating in a mall, but only because I’m one of the shoppers crashing for a while before either continuing my expedition or heading home.
    2. I’m not sure when you go on Sparks or at what intersection, but I work at Metcalfe and Sparks and I see people on benches and walking about all the time during working hours (9-5ish). Sure it’s dead outside of that, but that’s not my point. Benches are used mostly during the summer and spring and during that time it’s sometimes hard to find one that isn’t occupied so you can have a seat yourself. I wouldn’t mind a couple other ones at the intersections. I also read your recent post about bikes on Sparks and I couldn’t agree less. I *hate* when bikes go on Sparks because they never look where they’re going and they’re going way too fast. It’s a pedestrian mall! Watch for pedestrians instead of barging through. Bikes are not allowed on at least the stretch between O’Connor and Metcalfe (sign posted at Metcalfe) and maybe other sections too, I’m not sure. There is also a hill so it’s even more dangerous when they gain speed. I wouldn’t mind allowing bikes there in the evening and weekends to help with traffic to the stores that are open and making it more lively, but not during regular daytime working hours. I can’t and won’t try to imagine trying to get out of my building at lunchtime or after work to have to watch where I’m walking because the street is now a “bike mall”…

  5. You can’t take pictures in World Exchange? Who hangs life-sized narwhals from the ceiling and then forbids pictures?

  6. I love the idea of outdoor heaters. People like being outside. I know from experience in Sweden that cafes have outdoor heaters and they are used in all the winter months. They even have nice think blankets as well. And they are used, and it gets very cold there too.

  7. I’m thinking the seating opportunities at Carlingwood reflect the demographics of the mall, where clients are more likely to be older and needing a few extra places to sit and rest.
    Malls make for a great social space, and the more time people spend in the building the more likely they are to buy something. Of course, this doesn’t apply to teenagers – those folks are just loiterers.

  8. Having group seatings in malls, at popular spots on Sparks, Elgin, Majors’ Hill Park etc sounds very people pleasing. If Sweden and Copenhagen can do seating with outdoor heaters, why not Canada, where our winter is no warmer? I know, now that I’m a senior, I always appreciate a place to park my butt when I’m tired, and can’t walk another step. I seldom go into town for this reason. I don’t need to sit inside, as that’s all we do all winter. If the experiment in other countries, and NYC in particular have worked, and after 2 weeks, thefts stopped (and the ID on the chairs would easily identify the thieves, chairs could be recouped), and they were very popular for the NY residents and visitors. WHAT A NIFTY IDEA – what a wonderful use of imagination and common sense.
    Imagination is needed, as is developing a set of OOs, with no need for setting up multitudinous study groups, environmental study groups, disability access studies, and all the other means there are to stop or slow down tremendous ideas that would benefit all of the people of Ottawa.
    What a way to draw people down town again, after years of discouraging those who don’t live in Centre Town from coming down to enjoy the best of their city.
    Yes, tourists are wonderful, but there are hundreds of thousands of Ottawans who could be won back to visit the centre of their own wonderful, beautiful city.
    I might even venture down town to enjoy what is a enjoyable, and exciting part of the city I live in.
    Bells Corners is not that far, but after retiring, it is a rare occasion that I will venture to the Centre Town area which I no longer feel welcomes those who live on the outskirts.
    You stress on bringing in tourists, which is all good and well, but how about trying to coax the other ‘Ottawans’ that no longer feel all that welcome downtown with all the new parking regulations, and unfriendly streets with no warmth to draw us in.

  9. Apparently right angle benches/seats are the best – nonconfrontational. But do not forget activities. It is not enough to have seats, one should also have chess boards. (You can also use them for checkers). We need a street culture!

  10. Speaking as a regular visitor to Place d’Orléans, I have to say that the new seating in the hallways is a definite improvement over previous arrangements.

    And I do have some complaints of my own about the removal of truly useful street furniture from Sparks Street in particular. In my more cynical moments, I suspect that the potential safety of “name-your-fear” people during the winter months and our more torrential downpours of rainfall was something deemed worth preventing. 🙁

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