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The Power of the Movable Chair

The Power of the Movable Chair
Reuters

In his classic 1980 study of the use of public spaces in New York City, William H. Whyte and his team of researchers used cameras to watch people and understand how they used the public places in the city. One of the takeaways from the film footage was that people like to sit in public places, and, far more fascinatingly, that if given the option they will almost always move chairs before they sit in them.

In his film, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte shows this phenomenon in action.

Whyte, who passed away in 1999, saw this as a crucial aspect of designing good public spaces and parks – especially in a heavily populated area like New York City.

"He loved the Battery. He had sat here many times and really understood the dynamic of the people from this area," says Warrie Price, president of the Battery Conservancy, which she founded about 18 years ago to rebuild the park at the lower tip of Manhattan. She says she remembers Whyte encouraging her to install some movable seating in the park more than 15 years ago. "He said 'don’t forget: people truly love deciding where they want to sit in a great park. Movable chairs enlarge their choice.'"

It's this spirit that inspired the Battery's current design competition, Draw Up a Chair, which invites designers to submit ideas for movable seating. Along with a $10,000 prize, the winning chair design will be fabricated and installed throughout the Battery in 2014 after the completion of a renovation.

Movable chairs, though, mean the chairs can indeed be moved – sometimes out of a park and, for example, into someone's apartment or backyard.

"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.

And so far, designers seem to support the idea. The deadline for submissions is at the end of the month, but Price says she's already received submissions from all over the Western hemisphere.

Price says the idea behind the competition is both to create an opportunity for designers to see their work actually built and installed in a real-world setting, but also to encourage other cities to think about better ways to serve their populations through good design in public spaces.

"It's to really show other municipalities and other people in charge of other municipalities, whether it's a park administrator or a mayor, that you must invest in great design for the public," Price says. "They deserve it."

Finalists will be selected in June and the winners will be announced next September, but Price says all the entries will be posted online, enabling the public to see the different designs and, hopefully, to think about how these designs might fit in the public spaces in their own cities. Though Price is primarily interested in improving the Battery, she says these designs can help change the way we think about public spaces all over the world.

Image credit: Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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