Outside Arnotts department store on Henry Street on Monday, a harassed-looking elderly woman was trying to stick close to the door, where she was waiting for someone, but out of the way of throngs of shoppers streaming inside.
It took some skills. And it raised an obvious question: why are there so damn few places to sit down in the city centre?
“As an elderly woman, we should have seats on the street, because people get tired,” said Mairead, who was in the city on a day-trip from the countryside.
It wouldn’t just be a public good, she says. It would also help businesses. More elderly people would venture into the city if there were comfy places to sit, she says.
Public seating is definitely a problem, says Justin Moran, head of advocacy and communications at Age Action, an organisation that lobbies on behalf of Ireland’s senior citizens.
While there doesn’t seem to have been research done in Dublin on the issue, a study of UK cities done by researchers at the University of Leeds found that a lack of seating means elderly people, in particular, are excluded from city centres.
As Moran says, “The lack of proper seating for older people who want to take a break and the lack of public lavatories has meant that older people are more reluctant to go into those city centres.”
But it’s not just elderly people who notice the lack of seating. It’s visitors too.
Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, the communications and outreach manager at Project for Public Spaces, an American non-profit that encourages better urban design in public places, wrote about the lack of seating in the city centre on her visit to Dublin.
“The demand for it [seating] in this pedestrianized space was so high, it was not uncommon to find people sitting wherever they could find a ledge at waist-height: a junction box, window ledges, front steps – and if those were all taken, the ground would have to do,” wrote Johnston-Zimmerman.
Or, more succinctly: “Without buying a beer, your bum was out of luck.”
So why are there so few places for weary Dubliners, or visitors, or shoppers, or commuters, to sit?
“The reason why there isn’t so much [seating] is the fear of anti-social behaviour,” says Andrew Montague, a Labour city councillor, who chairs the council’s Planning Strategic Policy Committee.
Often, businesses and residents will oppose public seating out of fear of rough sleepers, or people involved in anti-social behaviour, he says.
The British are so afraid of homeless people sitting down that they have taken to installing spikes on ledges that could be used as seats. The hope of “defensive architecture” as it is called, is to repel undesirable people.
It looks like this sort of thing may be starting to catch on in Dublin. On Mary Street part of a ledge in front of Next clothing store is fitted with spikes.
That argument doesn’t stick for Moran of Age Action. “I don’t think it’s really an acceptable excuse or explanation not to have appropriate facilities for older people because it might attract anti-social behaviour,” he says.
Instead, “deal with the anti-social behaviour”, he suggests. “Don’t take away the facilities that are being required.”
In the city, Montague thinks a big reason people associate public seating with anti-social behaviour is how the benches along the Liffey Boardwalk are often used as a patch for open drug use. But it doesn’t have to be like that, he argues.
Public seating can, and should, be done better, says Montague. And not just for elderly people. “Even for young people, we want them to be able to sit and watch the world go by and enjoy what’s going on and not have to pay for a cup of coffee to get that opportunity,” he says.
One idea to fund the spread of seats might be to get businesses involved.
At least, that’s what Shane Waring of now-in-hibernation Dublin City Council Beta Projects – a spin-off council initiative to test ways to make the city better – has thought about.
Earlier this year, Beta Projects commandeered a few parking spaces to trial “street parklets”, which are diddy seat-lined parks on streets where parks and seating are scarce and sought after.
The first street parklet was in front of the Black Sheep pub on Capel Street; the response was hugely positive. It was there for two weeks, and Damian Breslin, manager of the Black Sheep, spotted a lot of people using the new public space.
Some were pub patrons, and others were just passing by.
Breslin saw several parents pausing with their children and one person who had bought takeaway at the restaurant Soup Dragon and come up to the parklet to eat.
The second street parklet went up on South William Street. Over the three months it was there, about 120 people visited the parklet each day. It did not appear to increase anti-social behaviour in the area, according to the end-of-trial “report card”.
“In general, it was very well received,” said Shane Waring of DCC Beta Projects. Now, he says, they need to figure out how to make it viable, and if there’s a business model there.
While many of the surrounding businesses felt the parklets indirectly benefited them, none were interested in paying for them. Trying to get a business to sponsor a street parklet, is “probably what it needs next”, says Waring.
When Beta Projects wakes up, possibly in 2016, they might try to set up a sponsored street-parklet experiment, he said.
Whose City Is This?
Last Monday, there were several homeless people sitting on the ground along Henry Street. One of them was Ben McGrath.
McGrath was on a dry patch of concrete beneath an overhang near the McDonalds on Jervis Street. He said he’d been lucky enough to get into a hostel the night before, but still had to spend his day trying to get comfortable in the grey city.
“They should have a couple of seats along the street,” McGrath said. It is not only homeless people that would use them, he says. “It’s also people that have jobs and money and want to use seats as well.”
McGrath doesn’t seem to see a problem with sharing benches with the people with jobs and money, and councillor Montague has the same inclusive outlook.
Montague wants to see the city’s open spaces improved with the type of seating that “you would almost have in your house”. It’s all about creating “a sense of place” where people want to stop, says Montague. If homeless people enjoy public space then that is fine, good even.
“We can’t hide away all of our problems all of the time,” says Montague, “and people with mental-health problems and addiction problems have a right to sit down.”
Change could be on the way.
At a council meeting in November, Dublin City Council’s head of Parks Service, Les Moore, made a presentation on the city’s Public Realm Masterplan – which will hopefully be sent out into the world soon.
One of its chief objectives is to address the lack of seating in the city centre. “We’re looking at spaces to provide spaces to rest and linger,” said Moore.
“Now, I know that there is a problem in the city with any seats we put out,” he said. “Sometimes you get anti-social uses in those areas, but we shouldn’t be discouraged about putting seats in the city. People want seats, they need seats.”