Beyond ergonomics: the transformative power of public seating in urban design

By Tabitha Harvey-Crowe. Edited by Camilla Siggaard Andersen.

Old friends, old friends. Sat on their park bench like bookends.” Taking a leaf out of Simon & Garfunkel’s songbook, we investigate why quality public seating may be the single most cost-effective urban design intervention for fostering vibrant destinations.

In today’s rapidly evolving world, public spaces face increasing pressure to perform across a variety of functions. There are now greater requirements for the public realm to be flood proof, heat resistant, universally accessible, clean and healthy, green and sustainable, economically vibrant and socially inclusive. And thus, urban design is evolving into a more multi-disciplinary practice, where the frontiers of innovation are constantly pushed.

Despite this, some things never change. Through millennia and across civilisations, seating has been a cornerstone of public life. By extending the amount of time people comfortably spend outside and convene with diverse communities, the humble seat is simultaneously a catalyst for healthy lifestyles, social cohesion and economic activity. Renaissance Florence, for example, was renowned for its rich culture of alfresco bench-sitting,’ where stone seating in piazzas and palace facades fostered a vibrant outdoor tradition of sharing opinions, knowledge and goods. Similarly, among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the tradition of sitting outside in Yarning Circles has been integral to community cohesion, enabling the transmission of stories and knowledge for centuries.

WA Museum Boola Bardip, Perth: Tree stumps forming a Yarning Circle. Photography: Peter Bennetts.
Level Crossing Removal Project, Melbourne: Integrated seating forming a Yarning Circle, Photography: Sarah Pannell.

The enduring cultural significance of public seating may be exemplified through its prominence in modern storytelling. Consider the frequent occurrence in movies where two individuals share a heartfelt moment while seated on a public bench. Whether it’s the poignant scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams’s character philosophises over the value of experience, or the touching moment in Love Actually where 10-year-old Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) confides in his stepfather (Liam Neeson) about being in love, the unique power of public seating to facilitate transformative human interactions becomes clear.


In a recent study, Hassell, alongside design consultancies PRD and Gehl, produced a report evaluating the social, cultural, economic and environmental impact of IPUT Real Estate’s investment in Wilton Park, Dublin. One of the initiatives assessed was the introduction of deckchairs, in 2021. Considering their low cost, they had a significant influence over people’s experience, with more people choosing to take lunch or meet friends in the park, regardless of the weather conditions. Even on a rainy Thursday lunchtime in May 2023, we found that the deckchairs were still 64% occupied.

Never underestimate the value of everyday amenities.”

Making Impact, Report 1, IPUT Real Estate Dublin

A similar effect has been observed in Hassell’s design of Riverside Green in Brisbane, Australia on Yuggera and Turrbal Country, where flexible seating options have proven transformative. From morning coffee meetups to co-working sessions, movable chairs on the Rainforest Deck can be arranged and rearranged to accommodate various activities. The portable furniture became so well-loved that the local community promptly rescued it when the nearby river flooded the site in 2022. Other seating options range from shaded benches and tables to integrated stepped seating. This variety not only caters for diverse needs, but also curates alternative experiences for seated affairs.

Riverside Green, Brisbane: Pavilion with movable seating. Photography: Scott Burrows.
Riverside Green, Brisbane. Photography: Scott Burrows.

The main standout is the use of the pavilion by workers and students with laptops — remote working at its best.”

Julia Scodellaro, General Manager —Planning and Projects South Bank Corporation

Riverside Green, Brisbane: Naturally shaded tables and benches along Clem Jones Promenade. Photography: Scott Burrows.

Situated along two primary pedestrian spines, Riverside Green has effectively been transformed from a mere thoroughfare into a meaningful landscape. Its strong sense of place and commitment to pause’ invites an interlude to dwell among endemic vegetation while admiring riverside views. This design philosophy also extends to Hassell’s Darling Harbour Masterplan in Sydney on Gadigal Country, where layers of grass terrain and strategically placed benches catalyse scenes of individuals relaxing or people-watching along the main thoroughfare, Tumbalong Boulevard.

Darling Harbour, Sydney: Layers of grass terrain of the Sydney ICC façade, overlooking Tumbalong Boulevard. Photography: Simon Wood.

Another project that exemplifies the value of seating is Shanghai’s West Bund waterfront. Despite holding a strong functional commitment to mitigating the impact of typhoons and floods, Hassell’s thoughtful design ensures that the space remains accommodating for respite and community activation. Since opening in 2021, the site has been attracting up to 40,000 visitors in a single day. Installing multiple opportunities to sit, the West Bund stands as a testament to the success of harmonising functionality and human engagement, while complementing the retained natural elements of the environment. 

Our team has been delighted to see people engaging with the spaces in unexpected and innovative ways— sunbathing, which is not common to see in China, people bringing board games to play on the tables… school excursions being organised around the River table’ and people relaxing and dancing on the timber decks. It’s a joy to witness.”

Michelle Zhu, Principal, Hassell, on the West Bund

West Bund Waterfront, Shanghai: Integrated reclined seating. Photography: Hassell.
West Bund Waterfront, Shanghai: Riverside benches set amongst nature. Photography: Hassell.


Public seating consistently emerges as a linchpin in the pursuit of creating vibrant landscapes, where people can linger, connect, and form an attachment to their surroundings. However, the success of these places is not necessarily ensured by the random introduction of benches and seating. Consideration of contextual factors is paramount, encompassing the seating design and the specific location and direction in which it is placed. 

For example, to foster enough comfort for people to willingly dwell and engage, the design must extend well beyond ergonomic considerations, hinging on flexibility to allow for the personal shaping of experience, a pervasive sense of safety, access, and a reason to pause.

Riverside Green, Darling Harbour, and the West Bund strategically position seating to meet these needs. Placing benches, chairs, and planters along busy thoroughfares creates opportunities for people to slow down without compromising views and visibility. Additionally, each location is carefully illuminated at night and incorporates moments of shade and sunlight during the day, contributing not only to physical comfort but also embedding a perceived sense of safety.

Darling Harbour, Sydney: Data.scape on Moriarty Walk at night. Photography: Simon Wood.
Riverside Green, Brisbane: Pavilion at night. Photography: Scott Burrows.


Investments in seating usually come with multiple returns, which may be measured across economic and social parameters.

Well-designed free places for people to sit, wait, drink, eat, meet, talk, and pause can, for example:

  1. Encourage human connection, if only through observation – this can prevent loneliness and strengthen trust within communities. Collectively, the wellbeing, health and work productivity cost associated with severe loneliness is approximately £9,900 per person year in the UK.
  2. Create opportunities for people to reside outside and unlock the health benefits of spending time in nature. A recent (2021) Australian study showed significantly lower odds of high blood pressure among adults in an urban population when reported green space visits were an average of 30 minutes or more.
  3. Accommodate those who may require higher levels of comfort and safety to participate in civic life. A study conducted by the University of Utah found that ridership grew at an exponential rate when transit stops were designed with benches, especially those covered by shelters and located on safer sidewalks.
  4. Generate a sense of belonging, which in turn discourages criminal activity. From 1999 to 2008, the city of Philadelphia cleaned up 4,436 vacant lots, signalling ownership” with fencing, benches, plantings and the like. Gun assaults in areas where the interventions occurred dropped by 29% over three years. Nuisance crimes like loitering and vandalism declined 30%.
  5. Support the local economy by attracting more visitors and extending dwell times. In 2012, the space in front of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia was transformed from a parking lot to a public seating area. Within the first year, the 250 places to sit facilitated 13,500 outdoor diners, with 57% of people buying their lunch from the station’s cafes.

Considering that benches and movable furniture can usually be implemented at a relatively low cost, the business case is overwhelmingly in favour of more public seating.

Margaret River, Perth: Main street design improvements. Photography: Robert Frith/​Acorn Photo.
Chasing Kitsune, Melbourne. Photography: Bonnie Savage.
Metro North West, Sydney. Photography: Mark Syke.


As we contemplate the design of successful urban destinations, it is evident that public seating is not just about providing a place to rest; it is a catalyst for fostering connections and building trust within our communities. Additionally, it makes economic sense. Even as our cities and communities change, it is unlikely that these needs will go out of fashion. On the contrary, public seating may be increasing in importance as a low-cost remedy against indoor, sedentary lifestyles and socio-economic disintegration.

In 1968, Simon & Garfunkel sang: Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly?” The answer both then and now, would be a resounding yes’.

Croydon South End High Street, UK. Photography: Jakob Spriestersbach.
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