The moment we stepped into Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, we heard the music. We followed it to the corner of the park and saw a band playing for a local swing/lindy hop group offering free dance lessons. Here's what was interesting: while all of the benches around the band were full of people, there was about a ten-foot gap between the sitters and the dancers. The gap was just enough to discourage people from joining in the fun, and the dance group was more of a spectacle than an interactive experience.
Enter the "bench bombing." We took advantage of the gap and put our benches down in an arc facing the dancers. In just a few minutes, people filled up all five benches. Feet started tapping, children began dancing and, all of a sudden, the audience became part of the show. Since the sitters were closer to the action, the dancers could grab them and encourage them to dance too.
It was amazing to watch, like a social experiment. Those on our benches were more engaged, danced more and smiled more. With one small act, we brought people together in a way that the permanent park design could not. As a designer of public space, this was a pretty eye-opening experience.
William H. Whyte, a famous urbanist and public space advocate, once observed that "people like to sit where there are places for them to sit." We proved, in one hour, how transformative a few places to sit could be. Now we have to keep our momentum going and bring benches to even more public places around Philly, as we continue to work with Public Workshop's Building Hero Project. We need to start a movement of sitting, of conversation and of hanging out. We really can bring people together, and it starts with something as simple as a bench.
Images courtesy of Public Workshop. A version of this post was originally published by Public Workshop.