City Sitting

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What makes some public spaces in the city centre inviting and attractive, places that encourage “civic pride” and conviviality, whilst other places make you want to turn up the volume on your iPod, pull your collar high and make a dash for the other side?

Take Bridgewater Place – and after today I imagine most people who came anywhere near there would say please, take Bridgewater Place, and dispose of it discretely but definitely, as far away as possible, deep under the sea. Feelings for the building range from dread and loathing to active antipathy. But then Bridgewater Place doesn’t exactly care much for the rest of us either. Nobody wants to spend more time than is absolutely necessary in the vicinity of that “iconic” monstrosity.

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And Bond Court. There’s never been anything special or “iconic” about Bond Court. As a place it’s easily avoidable. And since the flashy, pointless refurbishment, people are increasingly avoiding the place. Bond Court has solved the problem of “undesirable” types hanging around by making the place entirely inhospitable to man or beast. I doubt even a microbe would see much point lingering around here – it has a post-neutron bomb aesthetic about it and the only life-forms that could possibly be adapted to the place would be the CyberMen from Dr Who.

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Around the corner there’s City Square. Apart from the incarcerated Christmas tree – and judging by the strength of those bars that tree is doing serious time – there’s these things …

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They purport to be public seating but they look like they have been salvaged from a dubious fetish club. Personally I daren’t sit on these things for fear of getting handcuffed to the armrests and subjected to a severe bottom thrashing … surely I can’t be the only person to read a sado-masochistic message into that design? They make my bum sting just looking at them.

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Then Albion Street/Place. Marble slabs. As far as I am aware the only life form that considers marble an appropriate material for furniture intended for lounging and relaxing are vampires (I’ll have to check the population stats for the percentage of undead our city is home to.) Notice human beings prefer to lean against a nice brick wall to chat rather than subject themselves to the horror of these objects!

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Same in Dortmund Square. Furniture made of steel rods doesn’t attract your average human bottom. People choose to stand rather than rest their weary bones on these ridiculous objects – though those things could obviously withstand nuclear attack and will be perfect for that post-Dalek invasion street party.

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So, is there any place in Leeds city centre where there’s been an effort made to accommodate human flesh and human frailty and the human desire to congregate in comfort?

Look at this in Leeds Trinity.

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Technically this isn’t public space, and it’s a toss up whether it counts as “outside”, but what Trinity have done is simply to treat the passer-by as an adult human being.

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The seats are comfortable. They are made of organic materials. They are not bolted to the ground. You can move your chair closer to a friend or turn it away from a stranger if you don’t feel like socialising. It’s really rather beautiful … and, oh look, people are using them … wouldn’t it be nice if we had more of this? I don’t necessarily mean leather swivel chairs in Briggate but just a bit more thought about what constitutes a decent public space and what encourages people to linger and talk.

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Good public space doesn’t necessarily have to look good to the eye. But it does need arse-appeal.

14 comments

    1. No, I’ll not change my mind about the horse. That’s just a nag shaped glitter ball. And those foot-shaped marble things on the pavement outside are ridiculous … but the seating inside works. Don’t you think?

      1. I do agree. I’ve seen all sorts of groups use the seating: terms, young families, older folk. I can’t think of many other places in town where you could relax for a while without having to spend some money.

  1. The problem for most external seating areas is that they have to be robust enough to withstand the British weather and even harsher the wear & tear from the Great British drunk!
    This limits them to be pretty much either metal or stone and fixed to the ground if they have to last for many years.
    However I don’t see why they can’t be more ergonomically designed. Maybe they are trying to be all inclusive and PC so as not to offend any particular shape & size of person so they are made to be uncomfortable for all.

    1. Don’t agree James. Look at park benches … actually look at that seat in the public space beside Munro House (which is always occupied – by undesirables, but still occupied.) And I’ll look up the research about movable city seating. We have enough design talent in Leeds to do something remarkable I think. But straight lines, sharp edges and the harshest, coldest, most rain retentive materials don’t make a welcoming place. Bond Court is now depopulated thanks to the refurb.

  2. The problem is that all the outside seating in Leeds is designed specifically to prevent ‘undesirables’ from getting comfy and making beds out of the benches. Or to stop the yoof from skateboarding on it. This makes them so uncomfortable (to sit on AND look at) that nobody will go near them unless there are no other options.

    Agree about the s&m benches on city square, these hideous things ruined millenium square when they arrived there ages ago. Shudder think what the city (i.e. we) paid for them.

    Personally I’d like to see something that has an interesting design but brings new materials to the spaces. Look up ‘pile isle bamboo bench’ for an example.

  3. To be fair, you did do this in December. I reckon there’s a fair chance you would have found people sat on those seats on a sunny summer’s day.

    Doesn’t change the fact that most of them are pretty uninviting, though. Probably deliberately so.

    1. A bright, sunny, busy lunchtime … there were plenty of people sitting outside Costa or standing around smoking near the bus stops ten seconds away. I walk through Bond Court every day and remember when it was a lively place any time of year. I walked by about ten minutes ago and there were two young lads sharing a Special Brew for breakfast. They were stood up. The can was on the chess board. Says it all.

  4. I suggest the reason why the Trinity seating works is that they are being watched over by the centre’s security team, ready to ‘encourage’any dubious types to move on.

    As for seats in open spaces, they are always a doubtful proposition in Leeds, because anyone who stays still for too long becomes a target for beggars of one description or another. In much the same way, 360 degree vision is needed when walking, to stay one step ahead of the chuggers.

    Let’s face it – Leeds is, for the most part, a city for moving quickly and avoiding eye contact.

    1. I’d like us to be a city where we are encouraged to sit around and pass the time of day without having to sit behind a fence obliged to drink overpriced coffee.

      Agree about the chuggers though. When they ask me I always tell them how many chuggers have asked the same thing this year – so far I’m up to chugger 93. Hundredth chugger will receive a surprise.

  5. I’ve always quite liked the public seating they have in Barcelona, it’s maybe not the most comfortable, and it’s bolted down, but it consists of individual chairs arranged haphazardly, sometimes as singles, sometimes as pairs, and often facing each other slightly askew.

    So if you’re on you’re own you can settle on a single one, but pairs of people can plop down for a chat and be perfectly positioned for a conversation.

    The word that comes to mind to describe them is affable…

  6. I agree about the design inspiration behind the seating. Is it seating or is it actually urban art that has form over function yet also meets the need of not encoring anyone to sleep on it over night. I would like to see the old park bench return – good enough for Scarborough then its good enough for us in Leeds.

    Any open space that encourages congregation of the public cannot really then decide which members of the public are or are not welcome – otherwise it is not public. One mans undesirable is another mans friend, brother, sister, mother, father.

    A great aspiration for using and creating social out door space and one to be encouraged.

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