Helping cities nurture engaged communities
A house is a home when there is a warm, inviting living space to settle into. Surveys show that Americans make the sofa the center of this space. Sofas are the article of furniture households are most willing to spend money on. A couch invites and relaxes and gives a place to sit and socialize. In a very similar way, a park bench creates living space outdoors. A park bench may be the place for a first kiss or to stop and watch a vibrant sunset. Either way, it is a welcome seat that encourages people to step outside. When a neighborhood has engaged residents, they support small local businesses. Social cohesion is enhanced, as well as the physical and mental health of the population. Park benches are an important site furnishing to consider in a revitalization plan.
Choosing a commercial outdoor bench
In most cases, more than one outdoor bench is bought during procurement. Purchasers are generally furnishing larger properties, and must balance the needs of a number of sites. While choosing, the buyer will consider materials, durability, comfort, aesthetics, likely public use, size, mounting, and locations. In a park, a bench is usually placed somewhere with shade, a view, and some level of passing foot traffic. It may be a rest or a destination. At facilities or on the street they might be placed near amenities, shopping, and in plazas for people to rest, meet, or wait for transportation. The weight, back, and look may be different in the city than in a forest. Materials may need to be different in harsh environments.
What’s the best park bench material?
Park benches may be made of wood, metal, plastic, concrete, or some combination of material. Each offers pros and cons for weight, wear, comfort, and aesthetic.
Aesthetic: Wood benches are a good choice for places with a natural aesthetic. Wood offers a classic feel, whether the design is rustic or refined. More rustic benches may be made of thicker planks and left to weather. More classic park benches are often a combination of metal and wood, with finishes on both components providing protection and contrast.
Wear: The natural glow of wood makes an attractive and classic choice, but it also brings with it the need for more maintenance than inert material types. Hardwoods like oak, ash, or balau are usually finished with a UV and weather-resisting sealant that protects while letting the natural beauty of the wood shine through. Yet wood and sealant are both vulnerable to carving, scraping, scratching, and wear. Though hardwoods are quite durable, they will not last the many decades that concrete might.
Comfort: The seat and slats of a wood bench are usually quite comfortable. Even hardwoods have a little give compared to materials like concrete.
Weight: Wood benches tend to be quite substantial, due to both wood and metal components. However, they can be moved if they are not bolted or embedded, and in high-traffic areas they are generally installed in such a permanent manner. This prevents theft and, importantly, accidental movement and tipping in unusual cases—weather, accidents, or people playing on the bench in unforeseen ways.
Aesthetic: Metal may provide structure or design elements to benches made of wood, plastic, or concrete. Cast iron, either gray or ductile, is often featured in design details. Although raw cast iron develops a patina, porous materials like wood or concrete will soak up the iron oxides produced during patination. The resulting red stain is usually undesirable, and so a finish will be applied. Steel, aluminum, or stainless may also be used in a mixed-material bench.
Other benches may be entirely made of metal. Steel strap benches are sleek and hardwearing, and are sealed to prevent corrosion. Stainless steel can be finished or left raw since the “stainless” part of stainless steel is its resistance to corrosion. Finished stainless is usually used in high salt environments. Unfinished, stainless’ soft silver gleam shines through.
Aluminum benches can vary from the light silver of bleachers to more textured or painted designs. Most all-metal benches have either a sleek modern look or have an industrial/commercial look like bleachers in stadiums.
Wear: Metal benches are generally very long lasting and low maintenance. Iron and steel benches that are powder coated will need an inspection and possible removal for re-finishing should the surface become too scratched. IronArmor recovery can generally happen in the field. The material properties of metal mean that these stand up very well to the rigors of public use.
Comfort: The comfort of metal benches is variable, depending on the way the metal is made. Metal, like wood, can have give to it, depending on the thickness. Some grating-type benches with small holes may be less comfortable for a long rest than thicker slats benches. Metal transmits heat efficiently, and therefore can get uncomfortably hot or cold if untreated. Sealed metal, with a finish like IronArmor, will help insulate the bench.
Weight: Steel benches, like wood benches, are heavy but are still often secured. Aluminum benches are lightweight and therefore easier to move and install than heavier metals like steel or cast iron. They are often used in places where they might be moved.
Aesthetic: Plastic benches have come a long way from early versions that bleached and crumbled in the sun. The most common plastic being used in benches these days is a wood-plastic composite. This innovation offers a more natural look in a plank made of recycled-plastic and wood. UV-protected and wear resistant, these wood alternatives are often used as planks in bench design.
Wear: The durability of plastic depends on the type and manufacture. Some plastic benches made of thin material may deform over time due to heat and use. Thicker plastics (often polycarbonate) lend themselves to a much longer life cycle. Wood-plastic composites in particular are prized for durability. High-quality versions require less upkeep and replacement than wood or inexpensive plastic. Even in composites, however, there can be many factors affecting life-time use. Hollow or sawdust cores may deform over time. Plastic, being soft, is almost as vulnerable as wood to wear over time.
Comfort: Plastic usually has some give and is a reasonable insulator. It will often feel as comfortable as wood, although it may get a little hotter in the sun.
Weight: Plastic benches may be used, like aluminum, in temporary situations where a bench may need to be moved often, due to their lighter heft. However, in the case of composite-wood, they’re installed and bolted much like traditional wood benches.
Aesthetic: Concrete benches are often used in modernist or brutalist architectural settings. They can also be seen as the poured extensions of other site furnishings, as a lip around a water feature or a planting, in plazas and other central places.
Concrete can also be used for weight and durability as part of a bench that then uses wood or wood composite as the slats and back.
Concrete may be finished to change color or texture, but also can be left raw in the brut style.
Wear: Concrete is the hands down winner in resisting wear. It is incredibly durable in all climates and with a variety of uses, and when re-bar reinforced will have a very long lifetime. The only wear to concrete tends to be when it’s used by skateboards: repeated use may wear down the edge.
Comfort: Concrete’s high hardness and ability to absorb and store heat may make it less comfortable than the other choices for a long stay or in the sun.
Weight: Where concrete is king is in weight: even without bolting, it is almost impossible to move.
What size is an average park bench?
Commercial park benches are most commonly available in the 4–6-foot range, although both longer and smaller benches, and sectional benches sold in individual seat segments, are available.
ADA compliance is needed for most site furniture, and indoor benches have wheelchair specific construction. However, outdoor benches are not specified, since most wheelchair users do not transfer to outside benches.
In fact, some of the needs of wheelchair users may be challenging to those with other mobility issues. Armrests impede wheelchair transfer but can be very helpful for those with mobility issues. Sturdy arm rests are useful as a steadying point. In locations where there are multiple benches, some may have armrests and some not, but it is useful to include some in the site plan.
However, good universal design practices suggest:
- Seats should be between 17 and 19 inches above the floor.
- In a line of benches interrupted by walkways, gaps should be greater than 3 feet to allow those with wheelchairs and walkers through.
- One or more benches should have space beside for a user in a wheelchair to pull up to chat with friends. Minimum ground space is 30 by 48 inches.
- Installation should be done on level, stable ground.
- Benches with backs should be provided for any bench intended for extended seating, like those in a park or near a playground.
- Park benches with full back support are also specified as recommended for accessibility in the ADA guidelines.
- Backless benches are less accessible but are useful for brief stops where people may rest themselves or their bags from either side. They are especially useful when other options for seating are available.
Park benches and hostile architecture
“Hostile architecture” is the name for architecture, including site furnishings, installed to prevent certain uses of a site. In park benches, the two common preventatives are against skateboarding and lying down. Mid-bench armrests, and bumpy skateboard stops attached to the outside edge of the bench, are two common additions.
In recent years, there is increasing awareness that hostile architecture may have more effects than just limiting the activity in question. Mid-bench armrests can also be challenging for parents, couples, and those who might share a picnic on a bench seat. They can make people with certain mobility aids uncomfortable. Single-seat sizes make it hard for people to place purse or bag beside them, dissuading some users from stopping for awhile. Children can’t lie against a parent and nap or listen to a story. Additionally, these benches are designed to discourage those that are homeless from getting too comfortable. All these limitations on the use of public space may be appropriate in some situations, but in other situations they make the landscape less likely to attract and retain people.
Similarly, removing all skateboarding access in public spaces can have a bad effect on the activity levels of teenagers and young adults. Skateboards can be hard on site furniture, there is no doubt. Yet activity around furniture may suggest creative approaches to site design other than putting in stops and moving on. Skateboarders are often big benefit in underused park spaces. In neglected community space, the presence of skateboarders has been shown to decrease illegal activity, like the drug trade: other users can follow.
Yet it may be that skateboarders, in some locations, would be a clear danger to other people. They’re fast moving and high flying, and the potential for collision may be alarming for some. On some benches, skateboard “grinding” could cause damage and require impossible maintenance. Sleepers similarly can discourage other uses of an area, and the homeless population would be better cared for by services offering sleeping spaces other than a park bench.
Balancing invitation and dissuasion is a site-specific balance. A thoughtful combination of choices, including options with and without limiting design features, can usually address an area’s needs.
Furnishing a site
Creating a social, community space that offers benefits to public mental and physical health, community cohesion, and the local economy. When people are more socially engaged, they take greater care and participate more in their neighborhood. A place that is “sticky” has furnishings and nearby amenities to make it attractive for individuals and groups to come and hang out. Project for Public Spaces talks about the Power of 10+: sticky spaces offer 10 or more reasons for people to come be in a space. It might be food trucks, playgrounds, views, art, shade, or culture—but with each, a place to sit is invaluable.
Reliance Foundry has been focused on bollards for a long time, to help create a safe perimeter around these public social spaces. We are happy to now offer solutions for spaces inside that margin.