Why No Movable Chairs?

The Atlantic Cities recently reported that people like movable chairs. More specifically, Nate Berg cited a 1980 study by William Whyte pointing out that if given the chance people will move public seating before actually sitting down. Berg also writes that movable chairs are common in New York.

Movable chairs near Union Square in New York. Research has shown that people like being able to move their seating to fit their needs.

All of which raises a question: why is there no movable seating in Provo’s public spaces? Given the under-performance of nearly all of those spaces it seems like movable seating might be a cheap and easy way to increase usage. It’s also working right now at a number of downtown restaurants.

Probably the most obvious objection to movable seating is theft. However, Berg tackles that objection:

“In municipalities there’s the sense that if it’s not bolted down, it will move beyond the park landscape. Well, we see all over the city those little foldup chairs and they’re not bolted down, they’re not even chained,” Price says, referring to the chairs added to pedestrianized plazas and street corners in Manhattan, such as Times Square. “They’re on all the intersections throughout the whole Manhattan landscape right now and they don’t seem to be walking away.”

“I just refuse to let [the possibility of theft] be the guiding force to deter us from trying,” she says, adding that RFID chips will be installed in the furniture to help prevent theft, or at least track wayward chairs down when they’re moved too far away.

Though the life-span of a movable chair is probably shorter than that of a bolted-down bench, Berg’s article — and the research it cites — suggests that chairs may actually be more effective. In that light, it doesn’t really make sense to install only marginally effective seating, or seating that doesn’t work at all, just to prevent theft.

These benches get very little use. Would this plaza be better if it was filled with movable chairs? I don’t know, but some research suggests it might be.

Though theft itself may not be a big issue, the perceived threat of theft is probably a major stumbling block in cities like Provo. It may also be that designers outside of major urban centers simply haven’t considered the benefits of movable chairs.

But either way, this is a doable solution that doesn’t require major investment or changes to the built environment. In that light, it seems at least worth trying.

Chairs in Paris’ Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre. In my experience, these chairs elevate this area from a pretty-but-austere design-centered space into a charming, human-oriented zone. They’re a small addition, but they make all the difference.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Why No Movable Chairs?

  1. Paul

    It’s been quite well documented by William Whyte and others that people like to move their outdoor seating around to suit the moment (number of people, weather, eating or doing something else, etc.). As he further points out, public places where furniture can be moved around in this manner require more management by whoever is responsible for the place, to keep it clean and in good repair, keep the furniture from walking off, periodically rearrange the furniture with some sense of order, etc. This requires a higher level of effort than does stationary furniture. Unfortunately, many owners-developers of such places don’t want to be put to the extra trouble of managing the place to this degree. They’d prefer to anchor the furniture in place and be done with it. Often, where they permanently place the furniture may look orderly in a plan view or a rendering, but has little to do with promoting regular use of the space or the furniture. (We have good examples of this in Provo.) The difference between stationary and moveable furniture in outdoor public or quasi-public spaces is often a difference between going through the motions of providing great spaces and actually providing great spaces that will attract people. And attracting people is pretty much the bottom line when it comes to thriving downtowns.

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