polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

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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