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The Most Overlooked Element of Urban Design – Places to Sit

When an empty train pulls in to Flinders Street Station, the first thing people look for is a place to sit down for their journey home. If they are lucky enough, they will score a seat before there is no longer any sitting space available. As much as prolonged sitting isn’t great for our health, most of us would prefer to sit than to stand. This is not just on the train ride home; we prefer to sit to eat lunch, socialise, soak up the sun, or read a book.

“People tend to sit where there are places to sit.” – William H. Whyte

Sittable space is something that is easily overlooked in urban planning. It is one of the most important traits of great urban spaces according to William H. Whyte, a seminal figure in urban design thinking. Most of Whyte’s findings come from observing pedestrians going about their daily activities in the streets of New York City. In his film entitled “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”, Whyte describes what he means by sittable space and why it is so crucial. You can watch the film here.

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Federation Square is a large urban space in Melbourne, one in which there are always plenty of people sitting, despite the fact there are few proper chairs. People are adaptable; we can turn most surfaces into a seat if we want to. According to Whyte, good urban design does not make sitting an effort.

Whyte recommends a minimum of one linear foot of sitting space for every 30 square feet of open space, which is approximately 6-10% of the total area. He has identified the many forms of seating, and how to best design them:

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1. Chairs

Chairs should not be fixed. They serve a pleasant social ritual because people simply like to move chairs, despite having no apparent practical function for doing so. Fixed chairs, while preventing theft, don’t work well as distances are usually uncomfortable.

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2. Benches

These should not be placed in isolation, as is often a mistake made in many public squares to “punctuate architectural photographs”, according to Whyte. Benches must also be deep enough to fit two people, as smaller ones can become socially awkward and make it difficult for sitters to feel relaxed. The primary reason for having wider benches is not to increase the number of people sitting, but to give them more choice, which directly influences their perception of crowding or not crowding.

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3. Ledges

These are commonly found at the corners of buildings, elevated platforms or around planter boxes. They should be at the right height, dry, flat and unobstructed. Stepped ledges are particularly useful in creating many options for sitting.

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4. Steps

Whyte recommends that steps, in order to be ‘sittable’, be low and easy. This also makes going up and down a simple task.

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5. Grass

Not much needs to be explained here – walk by the State Library of Victoria on any given day to see how grass is the perfect seat (or bed) for a sunny day.

Urban spaces that provide an infinity of seating combinations invites more people to use them. If you think that increasing the number of seats in a space will result in overcrowding – think again. Based on Whyte’s observations, people have an “instinctive feel for the number that’s right for a place”. This is called its effective capacity, and even during peak hours the number of sitters will never exceed this, despite having plenty of room for more people.

The next time you take a seat in a public space, pay attention to the people around you – does the number of happy, comfortable sitters reflect the overall success of the area?

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