Musical Chairs

Movable seating in parks and other public places is catching on.
by | February 2004

William H. Whyte, the late author and noted observer of urban detail, so enjoyed watching the way people used movable chairs in public plazas that he videotaped strangers sitting on them. What he found through careful study was enlightening, if not surprising: Given the option to reposition the chair they sit on, people almost always do move it, at least a little bit. These moves "are a declaration of one's free will," Whyte wrote. "In this one small matter, you are the master of your fate."

It's been a dozen years since Whyte's affinity for movable seating got its biggest test in New York's Bryant Park, where some 1,000 to 3,000 green metal chairs are scattered, depending on the season. Thanks to the great success there, movable chairs have now spread to at least a half-dozen other parks in Manhattan and to public spaces across the country. Denver's 16th Street pedestrian mall has more than 100 of them. Nashville's Centennial Park recently got 300. And they're part of Pittsburgh's plans to turn asphalt-paved Schenley Plaza into a town square.

Park directors tend to wax philosophical when discussing the benefits of movable chairs over stodgy old park benches. But it's easy to see why they're such a hit. The simple ability to move seats around makes a public space feel more like a living room. People can turn their chair toward or away from the sun, or move it into the shade. Lovers slide their chairs close to each other, while strangers pull them apart. Large groups arrange them in a circle. The flexibility also means park managers can set up the chairs for special events, or stash some away during the winter. "People feel more ownership of the park," says Curt Garrigan, interim director of Nashville parks.

Many parks have resisted the trend, however, largely because of fears that thieves might steal the hardware, worth as much as $50 each. And indeed, it happens. Nashville lost about a dozen chairs since they debuted in Centennial Park last March. (A number of them disappeared about the time that nearby universities let out, which may or may not have been a coincidence.) Denver reports that a handful of theirs vanish annually, and 25 to 50 of them disappear from Bryant Park each year, according to Jerome Barth, director of operations. "You could call it theft," Barth says. "We prefer to think of it as people wanting a souvenir."

Whatever you call these chairnappings, there are subtle ways to prevent them. When Denver first put out sturdy green chairs with comfortable arm rests, thieves made off with 80 percent of them within 18 months. "They may have fit too nicely in a back yard," says John Desmond, who works for the Downtown Denver Partnership, a business improvement district. Recently, the Partnership replaced those chairs with ones painted either yellow or purple. They don't have armrests and people are likely to be ready to move on after about a half-hour. "We want them to be comfortable enough to sit in for a short while," Desmond says. "At the same time, we don't want them to be so comfortable that people take them home with them."

The intense focus on losing chairs is probably misplaced--fountains lose water and still they flow. And as park managers who've used movable chairs know, many more of them break or wear out each year than get ripped off. As Bryant Park's Barth sees it, movable seating should not be viewed as a fixed asset like a statue or a park bench, but instead as a commodity such as garden mulch or toilet paper that must be regularly restocked. "These chairs increase the social life of the park," Barth says. "You can't quantify that financially."