Plus Bench: Reclaiming public space for the public

September 17, 2018 | | View Comments

by Hannah Silver, Sustainability Manager at GBD Architects

The morning a driver laid on her horn at me for moving too slowly through a crosswalk on East Burnside was when I felt the shift. My spinal arthritis had been causing me grief, but rather than cooping myself up at home, I thought it would be nice to get some gentle movement and sunshine to ease my mind. I had always felt like I belonged in my city. Suddenly, I felt unwelcome in my own neighborhood simply for taking up space in the only way I could. I didn’t feel better. I cried the rest of the way home.

As my physical abilities have changed over the last year, I have increasingly noticed that many of us feel excluded from public spaces. My friends have found that benches have a middle armrest that prohibits laying down to rest from chronic pain. Chairs at a restaurant are too small for their body. Stepping off the bus is too large of a gap for their injured knees, but it is frustrating to have to ask for the ramp every time.

You might identify if you’ve ever tried to use public spaces while you have been injured, tired, pregnant, in pain, in a wheelchair, pushing a stroller, low-vision, plus-sized, tall, short, young, old, walking with your grandparent, dragging a suitcase, walking a dog, or rolling your bike alongside you. I.e., while you’ve been human. Some of these experiences are inconvenient because they are temporary. Some of them are a significant part of a person’s existence. Being faced with barriers regularly can be defeating. It makes a person feel that there is something wrong with them for not fitting the mold.

This is exclusion. Ever been picked last in elementary school PE? Or left out of a gathering of friends? It’s a sinking feeling in your gut, realizing that you’ve been excluded. It’s heavy.

But there is a lovely antidote: remember how nice it is to venture outdoors to hear birds sing in the trees, let the sun warm your skin, take in a view of the Willamette, laugh with friends in a parklet, pet cute dogs, smell roses, or encounter kind strangers? Research tells us that engaging with the outside world and establishing community are good for every human’s mental and physical health. Imagine if everyone could participate.

Let’s build a world where all of us have access to these comforts. You deserve them! You are not unfit for public spaces; public spaces haven’t been fit for you. Historically, we have designed for an average. When we design for an average, we design for almost no one. I’m not too slow, the crosswalk signal is too short. You’re not too large, the seat is too small. We need more flexibility. Public means for everyone.

Design Museum portland Street SeatsThis premise became the foundation for GBD+’s bench design. The team including Stephanie Morales, Tim Dudley, Luke Smith, Duy-Chi Nguyen, Libby Corliss, and Dan Nowell leaped into the Street Seats competition with four guiding principles: to make our bench encouraging, interactive, contextual, and as universal as possible. We worked with the phenomenal Vince Blaney from North Lake Physical Therapy to bring a hands-on, kinesiology lens to our research. The Plus Bench is a strategic mix of three different seat heights and widths, a comfortable fixed back, and the ability to slide seats in and out to find a perfect depth for your body, or simply for the sake of fun. Our bench design cannot solve all the issues of exclusion – which are far broader in scope than those of size and physical ability – but it symbolizes the power that comes from feeling welcome.

By the time I got home from my unfortunate walk that morning, the shift had happened: I was steeled. We all have a right to take up space and engage with it in the way that feels natural to us. As designers, we have a unique responsibility and opportunity to build a more inclusive urban environment. To do that, we need a design community that reflects the broad spectrum of people who will use it. We need to ask great questions and engage those whose experiences are different from our own to better design for a greater range of users. It will always be an uphill battle to truly design for everyone instead of reverting to a default. But it’s worth the climb if it means that we all feel welcome in our public spaces and at home in our wonderfully different bodies.