Matthew Cooper on better park benches

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On the list of things that are important in the world, I will admit that what I am writing about doesn't even come close to mattering. Nonetheless, I was recently asked to contribute something here, and after realizing what a somewhat daunting task it could become, I chose to simply write about a small and mostly insignificant occurrence that has had me thinking and has perhaps, in my mind, become analogous to other things. I would love to discuss the universe and all its complex mysteries, but that would be a much bigger article. Instead, it seems, I'm going to talk about park benches.

A short while ago, on a particularly nice sunny and breezy day in Portland, I decided to pack my book and bike over to a neighborhood park to sit and read for the afternoon. Weather of this sort can be a bit of a rarity here, so there is always an urge to get out there and enjoy it while it lasts. So I hopped on my little 3 speed cruiser and headed off with the latest Jonathan Franzen essays and a jug of water in my backpack, ready to soak it all in. Upon my arrival at the park, I began looking for a nice place to sit, and it wasn't long before I realized that my only option was a single bench, luckily, unoccupied, situated well in a nice shady spot. The type of bench, I imagine, is in just about any town and in any park. Sitting down, I took out my book and water and chose to stare into the scenery for a little while thinking about whatnot and mostly nothing, before opening up the book and proceeding with my read. Unfortunately, I was not able to keep my attention on the essays. Fidgeting and staring off into space again and again, it became apparent that the issue at hand was that I was uncomfortable. Namely, the park bench was making me uncomfortable. The swaying of the trees and the people playing with their dogs or children, were all working together in the correct manner. The scenery was in the right place, but I was not. The issue was that the park bench ( which was basically a few wood slats for the back and again for the seat). It was incredibly upright, though with a slight curvature and give due to decay, and beyond that something I just can't ever imagine wanting to sit in. I started thinking about a nice old chair I have on my back porch and the next thing I knew, i was on my way home again.

I guess this leads me to thinking about the purpose of city parks, and our use of them. Indeed, some have nice facilities. In fact, the one I am speaking of even has a swimming pool. Basketball courts, tennis courts, a baseball field and room for other various field activities are all on the list of options for visiting this park, and many others. Why is it though, that they don't actually seem very conducive to simply sitting and enjoying the time and space of the day comfortably? Of course a nice blanket is an option, but if we are already putting in benches for people to use (usually more than one), why not make them in a manner befitting of the situation. Even the slightest tilt backwards would be an improvement, let alone considering contour, materials, and other such variables. I have noticed that many benches these days are actually made out of recycled plastics. I've seen them first hand, and my tooth brush company seems to be involved somewhat as well, as I've mailed them plenty of toothbrushes in mailers they have provided which suggest this very use. So using these recycled plastics, could we maybe discuss the idea of various shapes and sizes and styles of park furniture? Maybe we could bring in artists to help design them as functional art pieces? I can imagine it as something quite fantastic. Lots of fun and strange colors and banana shapes with bucket seating (with rain holes drilled here and there) or looping hammock-y oddities. All of them built to last. I understand that perhaps we, as cities, states, nations, or global citizens are not exactly in the middle of a monetary boon at the moment. I clearly understand that perhaps there are more important places for city developers or park planners or myself or whomever to be focusing their energies. I just can't help but think that giving people a comfortable place to sit and actually enjoy the park makes a little sense. And I wonder why it wasn't considered in the first place. These spaces should already be a greater part of our lives and livelihood. Perhaps there is some piece of mind that comes in knowing that you have a nice place to sit and watch the world go by.