May I Have a Seat, Please?

by Min Li Chan

Wandering the streets of Hong Kong, you'd be hard-pressed to find public seating on the sidewalks, especially when you're meant to be going somewhere or doing something in this vibrant, relentless city. On weekends, communities of domestic helpers create their own makeshift Sunday seats — a transient sprawl of living rooms, if you will — on the floors of plazas. These are demarcated by cardboard boxes for walls, picnic cloths and household paraphernalia.

When I set out to The Creators Project in San Francisco this weekend, my mind couldn't help but hop across the Pacific to the memory of my fatigued muscles, aching for a sanctioned surface to sit on in Hong Kong. Just outside the venue at Fort Mason, a complex of renovated military buildings, seats were not only in abundance, but also part of an oeuvre of public art in the form of functional urban sculptures: If you were tired from meandering through the weekend's extraordinary exhibition of technology and art, you could settle into a seat nearby.

One appeared to levitate.

Source: Min Li Chan

Another embodied the struggle to rise up from detritus and scale a wall.

Source: Min Li Chan

Sitting, as a physical act that is at once mobile and stationary, has had a fascinating place in the history of cities: from Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus, to petitions for the right to sit on sidewalks. Today, urban environments almost demand shared public spaces and public seating — where there is bustle, it seems inhuman to deny the possibility of taking a moment's pause. San Francisco's recent "Pavements to Parks" initiative transforms wide, unused zones of streets and public rights-of-way (which make up 25 percent of the city's land area) into mini-parks, or "parklets." As San Francisco Great Streets Project reports:
Parklets offer a unique opportunity to widen a sidewalk, providing public space for people to sit and relax. Parklets do this by building out a platform into two or three parking spots so that the grade of the sidewalk gets carried out into the parking lane. On the platform, some combination of benches, planters, landscaping, bike parking and tables and chairs (in certain locations) all come together to provide a welcoming new public space.

Source: Inhabitat

Parklets with seating could be a welcome addition to streets in Hong Kong and other cities, creating restful, social and entertaining public space for residents and visitors alike.

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  1. on those lines Violet´s Walk is anise project to watch.

  2. UN-Habitat Governing Council at its 23 meeting 2011 adopted a resolution (23/4) on the importance of public space. UN-Habitat is urged to advance the agenda on place-making and public spaces in a way that will consolidate local and international approaches to creating inclusive cities, enhance the knowledge of UN-Habitat partners and local authorities of place-making, public spaces and the quality of urban life and facilitate and implement exchange, cooperation and research between partners working in this field. The World Urban Forum IV to be held in Naples 1 - 6 September 2012 will among other issues discuss place-making and Public Space.

  3. The current initiative taking place in San Francisco through the Green Streets Project contrasts greatly with neighboring cities like Los Angeles and Venice which have many unwelcoming policies. Mike Davis addresses the “mean streets” in Los Angeles that have small benches on which individuals can barely sit, let alone lie down. These benches were strictly made to prevent homeless individuals from using them and are privatizing public space by dictating who can sit there. In his 2012 book, Venice, Andrew Deener illustrates the amount of privatization happening in various gentrified areas of Venice. This privatization leaves many homeless people with no place to go, even when there is “public” space all around.
    The fact that the government in San Francisco has instituted various “parklets” with artsy pedestrian seating illustrates that public space is supposed to be open for everyone. However, it is important to note that at the end of this article it explicitly states that the parklets would be great for residents and visitors. Since the homeless do not directly participate in the real estate market by owning homes in the area, I am curious as to whether they would be considered “worthy” of sitting in these parklets.
    This relates to the larger question of who monitors this public space. By regulating this space the government may actually be privatizing the area which could lead to a dispute over the kind of people who frequent these parklets. Also the neighborhoods around these parklets may want more control of the area around their homes. This shows that the concept of public space is extremely vague in that even though these spaces seem to be made for the public, they are not entirely inclusive.


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