Is LOVE Park inclusive - or hostile? How the 'war on sitting' is changing public spaces

When Philadelphia Parks and Recreation cut the ribbon on the $26 million, new-look LOVE Park on Wednesday, it was meant as a formal invitation to the city: Come, take your engagement photos in front of the Robert Indiana landmark, step outside your office and have lunch at a cafe table, borrow a blanket, and sprawl on the lawn.

“One of the hallmarks of the redesign was to make it more inclusive and accessible,” said Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. She pointed out how the city had razed forbidding walls and uneven terrain to create a smooth, sloping approach, welcoming to people with disabilities and to parents and children coming from Family Court across the street. “It’s a uniquely democratic space, and we want people to come here from all walks of life, from all backgrounds.”

Yet some read the space differently. They look, for instance, at the park’s brand-new benches, each divided down the middle with a metal bar to prevent anyone stretching out for a nap. It’s a feature critics classify as “defensive design” — or even more pointedly, “hostile architecture” — just like countless other spikes, bumps, bars, and strategically placed flowerpots that prevent sitting, lying down, and, above all, skateboarding in Center City and beyond.

Lovell said dividers are now the standard when new benches are installed across the city park system, and argued they encourage people to share space. “Benches,” she said, “are for seating.”

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
A view of the new LOVE Park benches.

But it’s more complicated than that, according to Setha Low, a professor of environmental psychology at the Graduate Center of City University of New York who studies exclusion and inequality in public spaces.

“Socially just spaces do not have benches that prevent people from lying down,” Low said. “That would not be a socially inclusive feature and would, in fact, advertise that this park was not for everyone — and, therefore, one should ask some serious questions about why this is happening.”

In fact, it’s been happening for some time, and all over the city.

Lovell said she wasn’t sure when Philadelphia began installing bench dividers. But in 2005, when the city invited the public to vote on a new bench design, both options came with them built in.

And in 2007, as the nation slid toward recession and the ranks of homeless sleeping in Rittenhouse Square swelled into the dozens, the Friends group launched a fund-raising campaign to install armrests on the benches there.

Camera icon File Photograph
An Inquirer clipping from 2008 shows the growing homeless population sleeping in Rittenhouse Square

Early Wednesday, William Smith, 68, said the barriers did not prevent him from spending the night in the square. He feels it’s safer than a shelter; no one steals from him there. Some nights, he sleeps on the bench sitting up. Others, he lies on cardboard in the grass, though he hates the dampness and the bugs.

To lie on a bench without armrests, he said, is comparably pleasant: “Everybody likes to lay down.”

Yet it often feels as if there are more restrictions on doing so.

Metal bars have been tacked onto old wooden benches near the Irish Memorial in Old City (though many have been removed, replaced by slabs of cardboard for sleeping).

After walking by Columbus Square in South Philadelphia, Dena Driscoll tweeted with irritation at the parks department: “Any reason these ‘anti-homeless’ devices were added to [the] benches?

The response: It was at the request of the community.

Driscoll said that, recently, it seems as if she’s encountering defensive maneuvers everywhere — measures some critics have called the “war on sitting.”

She noticed a change to the stone and concrete walls in a corner of Eight Penn Center near 17th Street that her 5-year-old daughter used to climb on: Suddenly, in the last year or so, rows of spikes appeared.

“Why are we trying to make people uncomfortable?” she said.

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
Defensive additions outside Eight Penn Center, near 17th Street in Center City.

It’s an increasingly common feeling — the type of thing the German language might have a single word for — coming upon a place where you’re used to sitting, and finding that sitting there has been silently abolished.

For example, the fountain in the center of Society Hill Towers used to have a long, low bench perfect for loitering, until some years ago it was covered with flowerpots. Then there was the brief moment in January 2017 when the city banned sitting on Rittenhouse Square’s stone walls, then reversed itself after a public outcry.

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
The fountain at Society Hill Towers.

There are trade-offs inherent in design decisions. For instance, making a bus shelter bench unsleepable reserves the space for transit users who also need a place to sit.

Low, the CUNY professor, said it’s understood that parks have to serve a range of users.

“When public spaces get totally overwhelmed by homeless individuals, so that every single bench is taken and there’s a tent city, that to me is not socially inclusive either,” she said.

But she believes the solution is more affordable housing, not less comfortable benches. Often, said Low, defensive changes are made as cities seek to clean up their downtowns. “But, we have to ask ourselves: Clean and safe for whom?”

The West Philadelphia-based urban designer Jonas Maciunas thinks the armrests are a reasonable compromise, because they’re about modifying behavior rather than keeping people away altogether.

He wonders, though, why all but two of the benches in LOVE Park don’t have backs and why so much of the expanse is unshaded — two choices that to him feel hostile. “It’s one thing to point out the people that are there and say people are enjoying it,” he said. “But it’s another thing to talk about who isn’t there.”

READ MORE: LOVE Park reopens after renovations

So a wide-open LOVE Park, with ping-pong tables and gourmet food trucks, may seem inviting to some, but alienating to others, such as those who are fearful of police surveillance or who feel an upscale destination is not for them.

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
A worker polishes the “LOVE” sculpture ahead of the grand opening of LOVE Park on May 30.

“Designers are getting better” at defensive architecture, Maciunas said. “Separate from whether they’re being more or less inclusive, they’re able to make it less overt, which to some degree is helpful, but it can also be a little more insidious.”

That could be a subtly sloped seat that’s designed to make it easier to get up but also to deter sleeping, as in benches proposed by the Mantua Civic Association.

Or it could be an artistic flourish, like the eight-year-old curving metal benches in the Eighth and Market SEPTA station that were recently called out by Architectural Digest as particularly hostile. The designer defended them as durable, functional, and stylish. An El station, he noted, is “not something you’re going to put a Chesterfield sofa into.”

Maciunas’ least-favorite example is a new bench on the street just above that station, with an asphalt-on-concrete zigzag that seems intended to foil skateboarding and sleeping alike.  “It’s meant to look artistic, but it’s very clearly designed to not be comfortable enough for anyone to sit for very long.”

“It’s become, for too many public spaces, a default,” said Andrew Stober, vice president of planning and economic development at the University City District.

But lately, he said, there has been a movement to rethink defensive design.

Lovell says LOVE Park should be considered part of that movement. She said additional furniture will include low lounge chairs with ottomans, and emphasized that visitors are welcome to lie on the grass. Most of all, she said, the new public restrooms to open in the fall are a major amenity anyone can use.

One project that has prioritized inclusivity is the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s $13 million Centennial Commons project, which just completed its first phase: a series of “living rooms,” with swings for lounging, along Parkside Avenue.

“We’re not having any conversations around defending spaces,” said Jamie Gauthier, executive director of the conservancy. “All of our conversations have been around: How can we spark the most engagement? Our philosophy is that you want to welcome the public into a space. … We participated in a study that showed that public seating is connected to higher public participation.”

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
The Parkside Edge phase of Centennial Commons, in Philadelphia’s Parkside neighborhood.

University City District has also been prioritizing inclusion at the spaces it manages, including the Porch at 30th Street Station and, opening soon, the Trolley Portal Gardens at 40th Street and Baltimore Avenue, which features a long, curving bench with a back and no dividers.

“We really want to design for them to be comfortable for everyone to use,” Stober said. “Our seating shouldn’t reinforce the failures of our economy or social safety net.”

Camera icon Courtesy of University City District
A view of the Trolley Portal Gardens, a new project by the University City District at 40th Street and Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia.

His goal is that, whether it’s a businessman on a lunch break or a person who is homeless, anyone can sit, lounge, or, yes, even nap: “Great public spaces are places where everyone feels safe sleeping.”

In lieu of defensive design, he said, he’d rather address the issue by dispatching UCD’s public safety ambassadors, who don’t kick people out (unless they are being actively disruptive) but do offer to connect them with social services. They made more than 100 such connections last year.

Still, he’s hesitant to knock any bench, since every bit of seating helps.

“The worst seat,” he said, “is the seat that’s not even installed.”