The bench, young women, and public life

Benches are essential to our public lives. They are invitations to be, to pause, and to linger in public spaces. In our research with teenage young women, we found that benches, as spaces to ‘hang out’, were essential but also contentious spaces for this demographic.

By: Dr. Julia King and Olivia Theocharides-Feldman

Since 2021, we have run a program at LSE Cities, called Young Researchers-in-Residence, a paid learning and working opportunity focusing on the public-realm experiences and needs of young individuals identifying as women. LSE Cities is a research center at the London School of Economics that focuses on how the physical form and design of cities impacts society, culture, and the environment. We partnered with the charity Make Space for Girls, which campaigns for parks and public spaces to be designed with teenage girls in mind. We worked with young people aged 16 to 27 from seven sites in the UK.

A closer look at public-realm experiences
The importance of the bench was made clear to us in the small town of Trowbridge in the southeast of England. Here, a beautifully maintained park connects Trowbridge’s two main attractions – a relatively new retail area and the historic town center. The park has large manicured green spaces, tree lined paths, and in the middle a small shop serving tea and snacks. In many ways it is a typical green space.

It was in a walk-around of this park that one of the young women we worked with, pointed out that most of the benches felt too small to hang out in groups and that she felt “on display” using them due to their placement along central paths. Indeed, while many girls and young persons hang out in groups, sometimes for fun and other times simply for safety, bench spaces typically have a two to four linear seat arrangement, with armrests that dictate that one must sit neatly in an upright position. They don’t allow groups of people to face one another, and as they often border paths this doesn’t invite groups of people to congregate.

To the other side of the park was a wooded area, with a circular set of seating in the middle. While they described the seating itself as appealing to them (because it was sociable and accommodated groups), its remote and hidden location made it feel unsafe. They wouldn’t use it. Some benches were too small and exposed, others too hidden.

How urban design shapes social realities
We heard stories like this over and over. How certain “benches are not for us...”, with the context and even the very design of the bench making them feel that way. However, all the young women we worked with also felt benches were highly important to them. They wanted to see more of them, with social seating on highstreets and in green areas. Because most of the young women we worked with did not use the youth facilities provided for them in the public space, such as football pitches and skateparks; our work found that the bench was instead their most used public good and an essential gathering place. As one young woman put it: “What I most use is a bench, I don't use the MUGAS (multi-use games area eg. football pitch).” Benches not only allowed them to sit and chat, but for teenagers who do not have the same purchasing power as adults, to do that for free.

What our research shows is that the seemingly innocuous bench is essential to our, and particularly our young peoples’ lives. Indeed, objects like benches are artifacts of our society. They are not static cultural products, instead they have the power to reflect our social worlds. For example, a typical bench demonstrates how our society views an appropriate number of people congregating, way of sitting (upright), and type of user. As one young woman we worked with explained: “The size of benches is important because it decides who sits on it.” But more important still, objects don’t just echo society, they reinforce, normalize, and entrench social realities—such that, once made, a typical bench may proliferate the idea that large groups are not welcome in a space, or that it might be so horribly wrong to lounge rather than sit primly in public.

Benches have also therefore been objects of conflict in public life. It is common in many places for benches to be removed—notably under guise of ‘security measures’—when there is a perception of anti-social behavior in the local area, or when groups that authorities deem ‘undesirable’ make use of these spaces (teenagers or those precariously housed, for example). Many benches have also either had armrests added to them or been replaced with slanted seating to ward off precariously housed individuals. These resulting architectures (or lack thereof) are hostile, enabling forms of exclusion to be perpetuated through urban furniture, in a way that comes at a cost for public life and rights. The feminist urbanists Lapalud and Blache put this well, stating that “urban planners and politicians alike tend to suppress benches when they are seen as a zone of conflict, rather than creating the conditions for an inclusive, mixed usage.”

Designing for inclusionSo how might we imagine a better, more inclusive, more enjoyable politics of the bench?

It is impossible to completely ‘design out’ social realities such as exclusion, ageism or sexism, by simply having social benches, in the same way that by removing a bench we cannot design out crime. But we can acknowledge that social issues are reinforced by our material or physical worlds in ways which let people know if they are included and on what terms. Designing a fun social bench for a group of young women could be transformative to their experience of their local area.


Dr. Julia King and Olivia Theocharides-Feldman have worked together at LSE Cities on various projects, including Making Space for Girls, Spencer’s Park Engagement Programme, and Young Researchers-in-Residence. Julia has a background in architecture and Olivia in anthropology. They continue to work together at Julia King and Associates (JK&A), specializing in brief-development, community engagement and participatory design. They devise tools and processes that enable diverse voices to contribute to design and planning decision-making, and to shaping the future of places in imaginative and equitable ways.