Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
Chapter 1. - The Role of Furniture in Outdoor Spaces
How Do We Measure the Success of a Space?
Why Does Furniture Matter?
Furniture Is for People
Whose Furniture Is It?
Trends Worth Tracking
Chapter 2. - The Furniture Plan
Conceptual Tools for Furniture Planning
A Step-by-Step Process for Making Furniture Decisions
Chapter 3. - Types of Spaces
Pedestrian Mall
Urban Sidewalk Streetscape
Urban Park
Recreational Park
Trails and Linear Parks
Theme Parks
Children’s Park
Retail Centers
Residential Care Facilities
Office Courtyards
Transportation Hubs
Transit Stops
Cafés and Restaurants
College Campuses
Schools (K-12)
Building Entries
Roof Gardens
Chapter 4. - Seating
Seating Really Matters
Choice Is Critical
The Users’ Needs Come First: Location and Configuration
Types of Seating
Chapter 5. - Receptacles
Litter Receptacles
Recycling Units
Smoking Receptacles
Trash-and-Ash Combos
Chapter 6. - Other Site Furniture Elements and Accessories
Tables with Attached Seating
Transit Shelters
Wayfinding and Signage
Garden Borders
Bike Racks and Bike Lockers
Newspaper Racks
Tree Grates and Guards
Chapter 7. - Selecting Site Furniture
Six Categories That Drive Selection
Context Is Key
Chapter 8. - Accessible Design
The Seven Principles of Universal Design
About ADA
ADA Guidelines
ADA-Compliant Furniture Products
How Designers See It
Chapter 9. - Management
Regular Furniture Maintenance
Expanded Furniture Management Tasks
Chapter 10. - Materials and Finishes
Metal and Metal Finishes
Wood and Wood Finishes
Cast Concrete and Aggregate
Chapter 11. - Installation and Maintenance
Freestanding Furniture
Fixed Furniture
Chapter 12. - Sustainability
Making Sustainable Choices
Major Factors in the Sustainability of Site Furniture
LEED and the Sustainable Sites Initiative
Sustainable Sites Initiative


Bill Main: To Kathy and our sons Brian, Matt, and Justin. Mom and Dad, too.
Gail Greet Hannah: In memory of Rowena Reed Kostellow and Christine Rae.

When Does Furniture Work in Outdoor Spaces?
Kathryn Gustafson (KG): A dialog about the relationship of furniture and landscape has to begin by asking, “What is the landscape?” If we consider this question from the perspective of public exterior space, I think about the variety of roles the landscape plays, from social and political to aesthetic and experiential. Early models came out of communal forests which were productive and spiritual domains, not for leisure. There were no furnishings that didn’t have direct functional uses, like fencing or way marking. Another model was the private lands of the royalty. Their gardens, fields and woodlands contained objects that weren’t necessarily purely utilitarian, ways of framing and adding cultural information to the landscape such as arbors, walks, statuary. Neither model was about furnishing outdoor space for public occupation, but was more for uses such as harvesting timber, cultivation or displaying wealth.
Today so much of what we do with outdoor space is about solving problems such as remediation. We try to make things whole, shape it to allow people to connect so they’ll want to take care of it. Furniture works when it connects people to landscape, and opens up someone’s psyche to experience space more fully. Furniture acts as a set of tools, or sets of elements that heighten and reveal.
Jane Amidon ( JA): It seems there are many objects that equip outdoor space functionally which we wouldn’t consider to be furnishing, but are fundamental to spatial identity because these objects amplify experiential aspects of the landscape. For example, bicycles and cars create transitory effects, completely altering how we perceive our surroundings. Is a basic definition of furnishing simple awareness, or must it invite mental or physical participation?
KG: When we’re least consciously “aware” and acting intuitively, the body responds to how a space is furnished and how objects equip the user for living. Eero Saarinen’s chairs are sensual, sensorial; you participate ergonomically and it changes the meaning of the landscape around you at that moment. Each of his pieces gives the user a sense of newness. Josef Albers said that designers should strive to do better, not just different—I’m inspired by this and believe that furniture works when it excites our perceptions in a fresh way each time we encounter it.
The Fountain of Apollo at the head of Versailles’ Grand Canal unifies statuary and water feature to create symbolism and establish a sense of transition within the garden sequence.
André Le Nôtre’s mastery of perspective using topography, water and formal plantings furnished the royal gardens of Versailles for the display of power and wealth. Credit: photographs by Kathryn Gustafson.
Why do we have certain furniture in our lives? Like our attitudes toward clothing, how we use furniture has shifted through history. Some roles are constant: furniture constructs certain ways of using the landscape, like socializing, gathering. Newer roles include more active uses of site and increased security concerns.
JA: Over time we’ve become more informed and informal toward our bodies, scientifically and, are contemporary etiquettes that certain furniture and site configurations communicate. If you extend that idea to the question of outdoor spaces that for reasons of budget, program or maintenance require standardized furnishings, one might say it’s the designer’s responsibility to encourage responsivity to unique site qualities. The interaction between user, site and objects is a phenomenon we can anticipate, but not predict. It’s about using furnishing to suggest experience rather than using it to reinforce consistency.
KG: Design, and experience of what’s been designed, is about discovery. Any recipes for the design of landscape or public places are inappropriate. Formulas can dumb things down. Good furniture isn’t about predictable decorating of exterior space for public consumption, but for building on genus loci, revealing, introducing circumstances for discovering the landscape.
On a recent visit to London I found a wonderful garden I’d never seen before. It’s fully enclosed on four sides, you approach through what used to be the service entrance. I came upon a chair that through its placement and shape magically focused the entire space within itself and outward along the central sight line. This single piece established the meaning of the garden for me. It was about contemplation, intensification.
In the Victorian-era garden, chaise-longues and writing tables composed a social setting out of the natural surrounds. Credit: Austrian National Library Vienna, Picture Archive.
Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair series for Knoll defined the mid century modern life style and reflected advances in fabrication technologies. Credit: photograph is courtesy of Yale Archives, photographer was Harvey Croze.
If you have the right material in the best configuration placed sensitively into the landscape, furniture is inseparable from its space and place. The café chairs at Jardin du Luxembourg can be arranged and re-arranged, but their visual language remains the same and defines the park’s character because it’s in tune with all the other site elements such as the ground plane, the vegetation, the water. Although most site furniture isn’t made from animate matter and thus doesn’t evolve the way plants do, it’s capable of reflecting and bringing forth ambient qualities of the environment. For me it comes back to sensory perception—by taking in intuitive information about how something sits within the landscape, we discover ways of imagining ourselves in the site.
JA: The range of materials today suggests furniture as an activated object that mediates between human perception and site performance.
KG: There are many new manufacturing processes that take advantage of contemporary material technologies. But there’s also prevalence of historic techniques that we’ve rediscovered in the age of sustainability. Getting back to the comment on how etiquettes shift over time, this generation’s concern for the environment is driving greater interest in “green” design practices. So we’re moving from global sourcing and manufacturing to regional contexts. When we’re working on a project in Asia, for example, we use a different palette than for projects in Europe or North America. We look at local woods and stone, vernacular fabrication and preservation methods.
In the 1970s, designer Luigi Colani imagined an integrated, “biodynamic” living environment furnished with sensuous forms derived from the interplay of anatomy and technology. Credit: photograph courtesy of Bangert verlag.
The sequence of movement through the garden at St. John’s Lodge, Regent’s Park, London is guided by a language of furnishing and its relationship to vegetation: leafy arbor as gate and visual frame for the central axis, edged turf surface as path, statuary as focal point, memorial chair and benches as destination. Credit: photographs by Kathryn Gustafson, May 2009.
The public’s expectation is that designed sites and their furnishing respond to environmental ethics. Although once we solve the energy conundrum and have unlimited access to renewable energy resources, I think we’re going to see an immediate return to globalized design approaches.
JA: Cultural adaptation is a fluid but profound influence on how we think about furnishing and occupying outdoor spaces. You’ve already adjusted your practices to more local ranges. In what other ways do you see the relationship shifting between furnishing and landscape.
KG: I like to think that in the near future we’ll be designing furniture that produces positive environmental effects, like arbors that capture and store solar energy. Already many public projects attempt to balance their energy budget by including site features that “pay” for themselves through life cycle performance. Also durability is a big question for furniture in the landscape; not only do we try to minimize fabrication and transportation costs and therefore environmental impacts, but we’re also thinking about how a particular material will hold up over time. Designers have to consider long term maintenance as much as how a piece looks and works. Are there changes in how long we expect things to last? Yes. Instead of making a bench from non renewable hard woods preserved to last twenty years, should we use less durable, recycled materials that are cheaper and quicker to produce and wear out more quickly? Perhaps. Reclaimed materials have become more current—many public landscapes integrate fragments from past use to construct a new identity. How we re-imagine, re-purpose and re-situate objects within a site is a fascinating design exercise. Bill Main and Gail Greet Hannah’s book covers both practical and creative aspects of the role furniture plays in bringing outdoor space to life. The writers explore this subject at length, providing a level of attention that reveals its importance in the design of landscapes.
Kathryn Gustafson
Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd, Seattle
Gustafson Porter Ltd, London
Jane Amidon
Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture
Ohio State University

Many people contributed to this book in ways large and small, direct and indirect. Some of the subject matter was quite familiar to us and was written from our own experience. But much was collected from others who generously offered their experiences and insights. The book would have been impossible without their contributions and we are grateful for their time, energy and interest. We offer special thanks to the following people: Thomas Balsley, Jerome Barth, Marc Boddewyn, Paul Broadhead, Steve Cancian, Ted Crabb, Susan Goltsman, Astrid Haryati, Walter Hood Jr., Kevin Jensen, Deb Kinney, James Koth, Laura Lawson, Kathy Madden, Clare Cooper Marcus, Charles McKinney, Bob O’Boyle, Tom Oslund, Jaume Plensa, Peter Schaudt, Robert Schultz, Mark Sexton, Jerry Smith, William Sullivan, Kent Sundberg, and James Urban.
We’d also like to thank those people who provided materials and information or helped us find needed resources: Jeanne Ernst, Kathy Garcia, Our friends at Santa & Cole, Leslie Saxman, Ken Smith, Neal Speers, Ed Uhlir, and Cliff Welch.
Many people at Landscape Forms have helped by allowing Bill the time to pursue this book project. Some who contributed content or helped with particular tasks deserve special thanks: Janis Etzcorn, Todd Halstead, Richard Heriford, Mark Kramer, Don Lavender, Peter Rohrer, Denise Smith, Rick Utting, Mardi White, Tammie Winfield, LuAnn Woodhouse, and Arno Yurk.
Thanks to Margaret Cummins, our editor, who was always supportive and enthusiastic.
Thanks to Norm Lee, of Design Tower in Chicago, for his design expertise and valuable suggestions.
Thanks to Bob Chipman, ASLA, for his wonderful sketches.
Finally, thanks to all of the people who provided the photos and images used throughout the book. They are named in the photo credits.

Furniture matters—outdoors as well as in. No one would think of asking an interior designer if furniture is important to a space. It’s understood that in order to design any space, the designer needs detailed information about how the space is to be used, who will use it, and the feeling or identity it is intended to impart. And it goes without saying that the designer will use this information in the design process to select and plan furniture that will fulfill the functional, aesthetic, social or emotional, and bottom-line objectives of the project. In contrast, furniture in outdoor spaces is sometimes an afterthought. The relationship between the design of a site and the furniture elements that support desired activities and help define character of place is not always fully understood. As a result, the selection and planning of furniture may be left to the end of a project and the furniture not as well applied as it might be. Understanding the connections between site and site furniture enhances the creative opportunities for designers of outdoor spaces and increases their ability to influence the long-term success of the spaces they design.
Site furniture matters because it’s good to be outdoors. Sitting in the sun on a cool day, resting in the shade on a warm one, strolling on a breezy beach are deeply pleasurable experiences. They might also be good medicine. Numerous scientific studies document a variety of ways in which humans function better when they have contact with nature. The sun is an important source of vitamin D, which is essential for healthy metabolism and growth. Outdoor exercise, including simply walking, can help control weight, improve circulation and heart function, and build muscles and bone.
Social science research supports the mental and physiological benefits of contact with the natural environment. William Sullivan is a landscape architect who teaches in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois in Urbana -Champaign and directs the university’s Environmental Council. He conducts research that asks, in part, if having everyday contact with green spaces helps people function more effectively. A study of the effects of green neighborhood landscapes on individuals and communities, conducted at Chicago’s Robert Taylor and Ida B. Wells public housing developments, showed that higher levels of greenness in neighborhood landscapes yielded stronger ties among neighbors and less aggressive behavior. He concludes, “The surprising connections between neighborhood green spaces and the strength of neighborhood social ties, lower levels of aggression and violence and lower levels of reported crimes provides compelling evidence that nearby nature is a necessary component of a healthy human habitat.”1
Citing numerous supporting studies, Sullivan further concludes, “There are compelling arguments that regular contact with nearby nature is a requirement for mental health. . . . A large number of studies now show that settings that contain nearby nature, even urban environments that have trees and grass, foster recovery from mental fatigue and restore mental functioning. And, exposure to nearby nature enhances the ability to cope with and recover from physiological stress, cope with subsequent stress, and even recover from surgery.”2
The Therapeutic Garden Design Professional Practice Network of The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) documents research and best practices in the design, programming and application of therapeutic gardens that support physical, mental and spiritual healing and nurture quality of life. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the largest not-for-profit healthcare system in the nation, includes therapeutic gardens among the complimentary treatments provided within its restructured systems.
There are practical reasons for going outdoors as well. For people in many parts of the world living in marginal, overcrowded quarters, the out-of-doors is the last refuge of physical and psychic space. For people working in cities like New York, having lunch outdoors is often cheaper and faster than eating in restaurants.
Furniture enhances the opportunities to reap the benefits. It creates the settings for resting, eating, socializing, meeting. This can be especially important for the elderly, people with limited mobility, and families with small children. We believe that the right furniture thoughtfully and appropriately placed can attract people to outdoor spaces and add to their enjoyment once they get there. Getting people outdoors is the challenge. Helping them feel welcome, comfortable and engaged is the goal.
Design professionals, urbanists, and social scientists have written about the importance of furniture in outdoor public spaces since William H. Whyte did his groundbreaking observational research in the 1960s and 1970s. However, this information is scattered throughout numerous sources, making it difficult to access. In this book we take a fresh look at the subject, bringing together current thinking about the role of furniture in outdoor space and the practical information required to implement ideas. This is the first book to focus exclusively on site furniture: principles, processes, and best practices. It provides a single source for conceptual approaches, technical information, and examples of applications that succeed and, sometimes, fail.
Experience in the site furniture business and with the landscape architecture profession leads us to the conviction that there is a strong connection between the furniture installed in outdoor spaces and the success of those spaces in achieving the goals of designers and clients. In our day-to-day work we have an opportunity to experience outdoor spaces around the United States and in other countries, and to talk with some of the most creative, successful designers of outdoor spaces working today. They have a great deal to tell us about successful practices. In interviews for this book, many of these design professionals shared their experiences of what works, what doesn’t, and why.
Talking to experts on the ground and studying a broad cross-section of designed spaces has helped us identify patterns and formulate guidelines for using outdoor furniture to achieve quality spaces that work for the people who own them, use them, and manage them. We cite best practices in the use of outdoor furniture and related site elements to achieve functional, responsive, and supportable outdoor spaces. We aspire to give landscape architects and other designers of outdoor spaces the defensible information they need to make furniture an integral part of their projects’ scope and budget. We offer corporate, university, and government decision makers investing in costly, long-term projects useful information for making decisions that can help maximize their investments. In the process, we provide a technical reference for site furniture functional requirements, materials, installation methods, and maintenance. Our goal is to elevate the importance of site furniture by showing how it can be used to further the mission, purpose, and program of outdoor public space.
Chapter 1, “The Role of Furniture in Outdoor Spaces,” looks at what some influential experts and commentators have to say about the importance of furniture to these spaces. It discusses measures of success and the many ways in which furniture contributes to the quality of outdoor space. It identifies the various constituencies for furniture in public spaces and cites current social, cultural, and economic trends that impact outdoor spaces and the furniture within them. It concludes with a case study of Crown Fountain at Chicago’s Millennium Park, focusing on the role furniture plays in the success of the space.
Chapter 2, “The Furniture Plan,” proposes that furniture planning is an essential step in the overall project process. It provides some useful conceptual tools and a step-by-step process for developing a furniture plan. It includes a case study of Capitol Plaza, a Thomas Balsley project in New York City in which the furniture planning and site planning were intimately intertwined.
Chapter 3, “Types of Spaces,” identifies the major categories of outdoor spaces in the public realm. It enumerates their unique furniture and amenity requirements, identifies special issues for each, and offers guidelines for furniture selection and placement. A chart for quick reference is included.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 provide detailed information on furniture elements by type. Chapter 4, “Seating,” deals with the full spectrum of seating, from benches and chairs to leaning rails and modular systems. It describes attributes, discusses user needs, and proposes appropriate applications. This chapter includes a case study of a movable chair with a long history and icon status at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Memorial Union Terrace.
Chapter 5, “Receptacles,” provides more information on receptacles than one expects would exist on the subject. As it turns out, this common, essential site furniture element is not quite as simple as it looks. This chapter lays out what, how, why, where, how many, and how big, with variations on the theme.
Chapter 6, “Other Site Furniture Elements and Accessories,” deals with other prominent site furniture elements and accessories, including tables (with and without attached seating), umbrellas, planters, bike racks, and transit shelters. It describes what they are and how they are used, and provides useful information for successful applications.
Chapter 7, “Selecting Site Furniture,” defines the issues that inform site furniture decisions, identifies the concerns that various constituencies bring to the decision-making process, and describes the characteristics and differences between standard, special, and custom furniture.
Chapter 8, “Accessible Design,” outlines and defines principles and practices for creating universal outdoor spaces that are accessible to a broad range of people. It includes detailed information on American Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) applicable to site furniture in public spaces.
Chapter 9, “Management,” explores a subject whose relationship to site design is not always clearly understood. The fact is, management has a huge impact on the success of public spaces, and managing site furniture is a big part of the story. This chapter concludes with a detailed case study of how site and furniture management is carried out at Bryant Park, one of the world’s most successful, and successfully managed, public spaces.
Chapter 10, “Materials and Finishes,” lays out the key factors that drive material choices for site furniture, identifies what makes a material suitable for a particular application, and discusses in detail the most commonly used site furniture materials and finishes.
Chapter 11, “Installation and Maintenance,” addresses two critical issues. The first can literally make or break the site furniture on a project. The second can wield huge influence on how long site furniture serves its purpose and how good it continues to look in the process. Recommended guidelines and regular maintenance protocols are provided.
Chapter 12, “Sustainability,” presents the major issues involved in making sustainable site furniture choices, identifies areas where information is available and where it is lacking, alerts the professional to areas in which questions should be asked and trade-offs may have to be made, and outlines industry and professional initiatives that will influence sustainability going forward.
As authors, we recommend reading, or at least scanning, the entire book to gain an overview of the subject and the perspective from which we write. However, readers may skip around and tap individual chapters as reference sources for specific types of information. The case studies and photographs speak for themselves.


1 William Sullivan, “Nature at Home: An Evolutionary Perspective,” in Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World, ed. P. Bartlett (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 246.
2 Ibid., 248.

The Role of Furniture in Outdoor Spaces
What do we mean when we talk about site and street furniture? For the purposes of this book we mean elements introduced into outdoor spaces to provide comfort and convenience for the people who use them. In general, we do not include elements more properly considered aspects of infrastructure. In cases where there’s a fine line between the two, we come down on the side of what we know. So we will talk about seating in its many forms—benches, chairs, stools, and lounges, both primary and secondary (the latter being additional built-in or movable seating for peak times)—as well as tables, both with and without attached seating. We will consider litter receptacles and ash urns, shade structures, bollards and bike racks, and planters. We will touch on lighting and signage. We will not include elements such as fire hydrants and water features. In our discussion of spaces, we include streets, plazas, parks, courtyards, campuses (both corporate and institutional), trails, retail centers, health care settings, rooftops, and education. We do not include pool and patio or residential.

How Do We Measure the Success of a Space?

William H. (“Holly”) Whyte assumed the number of people using a space to be the first measure of its success. Many design professionals and owners of public spaces agree. Whyte began the research that culminated in his watershed book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, in order to understand “why some [city spaces] work for people, and some do not.”1 He noted that “the tightest-knit CBD (central business district) anywhere contained a surprising amount of open space that was relatively empty and unused.”2 His assumption was that a better understanding of how and why people use outdoor spaces would lead to more densely used, and thus more successful, spaces.
Whyte’s assessment of use as the major determinant of success has been endorsed by other thinkers and practitioners. Landscape architect Mark Francis writes: “Recently it has become more commonly understood that successful parks and open spaces such as plazas, streets, and public gardens are ones that are lively and well-used by people.” He notes that the works of William Whyte, Clare Cooper Marcus, Kevin Lynch, Jan Gehl, Louise Mozingo, and Lyn Lofland, among others, “have shown definitely that use is a requirement for good public landscapes.”3
1.1 A comfortable bench provides the perfect place for ladies who lunch. Photo: Mark Bugnaski, used with permission of the Kalamazoo Gazette, copyright 2008, all rights reserved
1.2 What makes a great place? Furniture can contribute to many of the intangibles supporting all of the key attributes. Credit: copyright 2002 Project for Public Spaces
The Project for Public Spaces is renowned for its insistence upon use as the key measure of success, and for its programming and advocacy designed to increase public use of outdoor spaces. “In evaluating thousands of public spaces around the world, Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has found that successful ones have four key qualities: they are accessible; people are engaged in activities there; the space is comfortable and has a good image; and finally, it is a sociable place: one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.”4
Density of use is not the only yardstick for measuring the success of outdoor public spaces. The people who design, commission, or enjoy those spaces often have other expectations and goals. Designers typically put a high value on aesthetics in furniture and site design.
• The furniture itself may be conceived as art.
1.3 Above: Atwater Place, South Waterfront District, Portland, Oregon. This private courtyard of a housing and retail complex contains a series of reflecting pools. A small plaza enjoyed by residents creates a seamless transition from the courtyard to surrounding public spaces. Copyright 2008. Photo credit: Mayer/Reed and C. Bruce Forster
1.4a, 1.4b “Two Too Large Tables” by Allan and Ellen Wexler at Hudson River Park, in New York City, are designed to encourage interaction (and perhaps bemused smiles). Chair backs hold up the tall table which is at roof height. Chairs form the legs of the lower table, which is at normal height. Photo credit: Bill Main
1.4c The seating designed by Martha Schwartz for Jacob Javits Plaza in New York City filled the void left when Richard Serra’s controversial sculpture was removed. The dominant element in the new plaza design, which reanimates the space and reconnects the plaza to its surrounding context, it offers innumerable seating opportunities provided on back-to-back twisting strands of New York City park benches. Photo credit: Martha Schwartz Partners
1.5 Ping Tom Park employs Chinese cultural and historic motifs in this popular riverside park serving Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood. Photo: copyright © Jim Powell
• Sometimes the aesthetic of the furniture defines the character of the space. (See figure 1.4c)
• Communities may find the success of a place in the pride it engenders or in its expression of cultural heritage. (See figure 1.5)
• Special features such as fountains or sculpture can make spaces successful. (See figure 1.6)
1.6 British artist Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” aka “The Bean,” reflects images of the city and the hordes of visitors it draws to the AT&T Plaza in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Photo credit: Bill Main
1.7 A beautiful space, beautifully maintained, beckons at Norman Leventhal Park in Boston’s Post Office Square. Photo credit: Bill Main
• The ability of a space to conjure or enable experiences such as hearing the sounds of wind or water or watching the play of light is an important measure of success. (See Figure 1.7)
• The ability to manage and maintain a space can determine (or undermine) success. (See Figure 1.8)
1.8 An object lesson in poorly maintained public space. Photo credit: Bill Main
1.9 Bryant Park provides spaces for a wide range of people and activities—some work, some play. Credit: Bryant Park Corporation, photo: Ethan Lercher
• The extent to which a space supports multiple constituencies and allows people to work and play together can be critical to its success. (See Figure 1.9)

Why Does Furniture Matter?

All that said, our focus is not on outdoor space itself but on what’s in the space. So why does furniture in these spaces matter? Furniture is vital to the way people respond to outdoor space and to the duration and quality of their experience there. It has numerous roles.
1.10 Rain or shine, people can’t stay away from New York City’s Paley Park. Photo credit: Bill Main
1.11 Signature seating at the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris. Photo credit: Jardins du Luxembourg, Paris, Mia Serra 1995
• Furniture in outdoor spaces may embody and convey powerful symbolic meanings. Seating and tables in outdoor spaces say, “This place is for you.” They extend a friendly gesture that attracts and welcomes. Sociable tables and chairs in New York’s Paley Park were a magnet for passersby three decades ago when William H. Whyte observed activity there, and the same furniture in the same configurations still draws people into this enduringly successful public space today. (See Figure 1.10)
• Furniture in outdoor spaces can communicate identity and project image. Family-friendly? Hip? Traditional and enduring? Nothing says Paris like the iconic chairs of the Luxembourg Gardens. (See Figure 1.11)
1.12 The sunburst chair welcomes visitors to Memorial Union Terrace, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Photo credit: Bill Main
• The signature yellow and red sunburst chairs at the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Terrace have become so synonymous with the school and its culture, they’ve been trademarked. (See figure 1.12)
• In its type and arrangement, furniture can communicate social messages. By enabling community activity and group interaction, it expresses support for civil society. And by providing opportunities for underserved populations, such as the elderly or disabled, it signals commitment to inclusiveness. In its style, furniture may embody and convey historical connections to a specific time or event, or to the architectural heritage of a place. In its materials and the way it physically connects to the natural world, outdoor furniture may embody and express environmental values and aspirations. It may be upscale and contemporary or rustic and down-home, to complement sophisticated urban settings or evoke rural woodsy environments. New or unusual styles, materials, colors, and configurations can be a vehicle for expressing local identity or rebellion against sameness and the mundane.
• Furniture in outdoor spaces also has important functional roles. It adds to the overall usefulness of spaces by supporting multiple options for activities, both active and passive.
• Well-designed seating provides ergonomic support and comfort, enabling many people to enjoy outdoor spaces and to spend more time in them. (See Figure 1.14)
• Litter receptacles and ash urns support cleanliness and hygiene. (See Figure 1.15)
• Furniture renders outdoor spaces more convenient by punctuating distances with places for people to rest, meet, and dispose of trash. (See Figure 1.16)
• Bike racks and bollards provide security and safety. (See Figure 1.17)
1.13 Chicago’s Daley Plaza hosts a festival in its multifunctional space. Photo credit: Bill Main
1.14 Give them a good place to sit, as here in Spain. Photo credit: Bancos Neoromantico. Barcelona, Julio Cunill 2001
1.15 Receptacles help keep it clean. Photo credit: Bryant Park Corporation
• Furniture can be used very effectively to create visual order, provide space definition, delineate functional areas, and provide orientation. A good example is Daley Plaza in Chicago, a big, flat open space in which the furniture around the perimeter provides a border for and defines the space in the center, which is used for activities and social events. (See figures 1.13, 1.14)
1.16 Walkways, well-placed benches, shade, and views. It’s all there in Hudson River Park, New York City. Photo credit: Bill Main
1.17 An orderly procession of bike racks enhances the streetscape in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photo credit: Bill Main
The importance of furniture to the viability and vitality of outdoor spaces is supported by research. The observations of William H. Whyte, based on time-lapse photography and participant-observation techniques and documented in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, have influenced decades of public space design and policy. In New York City many of his recommendations for seating in public spaces have been encoded into law.
1.18 Furniture around the perimeter provides lively settings and defines central open space in Chicago’s Daley Park. Photo credit: Bill Main
Whyte was interested in why, in their use of plazas, New Yorkers consistently gravitated to some and bypassed others. He looked at likely causes: the sun, the aesthetics of the space, and the shape of the space. All of these factors were found to be important but not sufficient to explain the differences in use. When he looked at the amount of space in a plaza, he discovered that sheer space alone does not draw people and may have the opposite effect. Then he asked, “What about the amount of sittable space?” Indeed, his charts plotting usage over time showed that the most popular plazas had considerably more space for sitting than the less frequented ones. He tried weighting for variables such as backrests, armrests, and physical comfort. “No matter how many variables we checked,” he wrote, “one point kept coming through . . . : People tend to sit most where there are places to sit.” Whyte was quick to admit that this was not an “intellectual bombshell.” But it was a critical piece of information that led to a basic guideline for the design of public spaces. “Sitting space, to be sure, is only one of the many variables. . . . But sitting space is most certainly prerequisite. The most attractive fountains, the most striking designs, cannot induce people to come and sit if there is no place to sit.”5
Whyte was also interested in the quality of the sitting experience. He acknowledged the importance of physical comfort but after much study concluded, “It’s more important . . . [that sitting] be socially comfortable. This means choice: sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone.”6 Another guideline for the design of successful public spaces was laid down.
Research on the role of furniture in public spaces has been done in other cultures as well. Jan Gehl is an urban designer, a professor of urban design at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark, and director of its Center for Public Space Research. For more than three decades he has been a student and theorist of urban spaces and what makes them work. Gehl was instrumental in helping to transform Copenhagen from a car-dominated city to what Metropolis magazine rates as “one of the world’s great pedestrian cities.” He recently consulted on the transformation of New York City’s Broadway between 42nd Street and Herald Square from a four-lane thoroughfare to a two-lane street with lanes set aside for bicycles and a pedestrian walkway with cafe tables and chairs. In Gehl’s seminal book Life Between Buildings, he posited conclusions, based on systematic study and recording of people in the city, that underscore and expand on Whyte’s contribution:
It is of particular importance to emphasize what good sitting arrangements mean in all types of public spaces. . . . Only when opportunities for sitting exist can there be stays of any duration. If these opportunities are few or bad, people just walk on by. This means not only that stays in public are brief, but also that many attractive and worthwhile outdoor activities are precluded.
The existence of good opportunities for sitting paves the way for the numerous activities that are the prime attractions in public spaces: eating, reading, sleeping, knitting, playing chess, sunbathing, watching people, talking, and so on.
These activities are so vital to the quality of public spaces that the availability or lack of good sitting opportunities must be considered an all-important factor in evaluating the quality of the public environment in a given area. To improve the quality of the outdoor environment in an area by simple means, it is almost always a good idea to create more and better opportunities for sitting.7
The Project for Public Spaces has studied and improved thousands of public spaces around the world as it carries out its mission: “connecting people to ideas, expertise, and partners who share a passion for creating vital places.” In “A Primer on Seating,” PPS declares, “Seating that is accessible, comfortable, well-maintained, and located in the right places is critical to successful placemaking.”8
Jay Walljasper writes in The Great Neighborhood Book: “A key ingredient of lively, safe, fun neighborhoods is public spaces where people will spontaneously gather. People out on the streets bring a community magically alive. You get to know your neighbors, you feel secure, and you have a place to hang out. And there’s one simple way to do this: Give everyone a spot where they can sit down. A bench or chairs can transform a lonely space into a lively place.”9
In How to Turn a Place Around, PPS analyzes why many public spaces fail and concludes:
Today, many public spaces seem to be intentionally designed to be looked at but not touched. They are neat, clean and empty—as if to say, “no people, no problem!” But when a public space is empty, vandalized or used chiefly by undesirables, this is generally an indication that something is very wrong with its design, or its management, or both. . . . Some problems are related to the design of a space . . . [including] lack of good places to sit.10
1.19 A well-designed, well-maintained, busy, and welcoming space. Photo credit: Capitol Plaza, New York City, Thomas Balsley Associates.
1.20 No good place to sit in a sad space. Photo credit: Bill Main
1.21 The value of absence: unoccupied chairs in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris. Photo credit: Jardins du Luxembourg, Paris, Mia Serra 1995
Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis, editors of People Places: Design Guidelines for Urban Open Space, write: “Site furniture makes the space usable. Without it, people’s choices are limited, and they are likely only to look around or walk through a space and then leave. Site furniture should enable the space to be used by as many people as possible throughout the year.”11
Even when good places to sit are unoccupied, they can convey powerful meanings about a space. “The value of absence is another good keynote for urban elements,” writes Marius Quintana Creus. He goes on to explain:
The image of the empty chairs in the Jardin des Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris is perhaps what best sums (this) up. We can still feel the presence of the people who have just used them. The positions in which the chairs have been left allow us to guess at the number of people who gathered and the arrangement in which they sat. The place and orientation they occupy help us to seek out the spot’s finest views. These are chairs so simple and almost natural in design. But this simple and natural design is fruit of the mobility and adaptation they allow the user, their long presence in these places and the lengthy tradition lying behind these urban spaces. They are the elements which lend these places their definitive content, once places of contemplation and dramatism, now become places of tranquility and relaxation in the midst of the great metropolis.12

Furniture Is for People

The foundation for all of the discussion in this book is the conviction that furniture in outdoor spaces is for people. Its primary role is to provide utility and comfort. It may play a secondary role in accessorizing, but if it is no more than an object to pretty the plan or occupy a void, it isn’t doing what it can do. Furniture is a key touch point of outdoor spaces. It’s where people stop and make a physical connection with a space. It is direct evidence that a space was designed with people in mind.