Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where Did the Benches Go?

Until last spring, the fountain in front of City Hall was surrounded by benches - nothing fancy, just comfortable metal park benches that could be used to sit for a moment, enjoying the spray from the fountain on a hot day, before moving on. Staff from City Hall used them on breaks or at lunch; I'd even sat on them a time or two, often when I ran into someone with a quick question or suggestion.

Then, last May, just before the western premiers' three day meeting in Prince Albert, they were removed. I don't know why they were removed; it certainly wasn't a question that came to council, probably because there wasn't much logic to it. There are still benches in front of City Hall, but they're the uncomfortable wooden slat, backless objects that are quite firmly set in concrete along the edge of the square, under the trees- those aren't coming out without a great deal of work. But the comfortable, attractive benches - those are gone. A few people have asked me where they went, and when they're being replaced - I've asked a couple of times, but haven't received an answer yet.

Those benches by the fountain made the area in front of City Hall a more welcoming place, and suggested indirectly that downtown is a welcoming place to be be - a destination where people are welcome to stay for awhile. Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps we subconciously are afraid that, if we provide places for people to sit and rest, the "wrong" people will do so. And we often define the "wrong" people as those who are different from us, ignoring the fact that everyone who lives here should be able to enjoy what the city has to offer. Or perhaps we're trying to discourage people from taking a break, not wanting to appear to be a city that lazes about in the sunshine.

Removing the benches, for whatever reason, discourages everybody from using the area. As the Downtown Business Improvement District people keep reminding us, the more people that use the downtown area, including the riverbank, the safer it becomes. So we should be doing what we can to encourage people to use these areas, not discourage them.

Currently, the area in front of City Hall is rather boring - a nice fountain, and several containers of flowers lined up militarily, some grass that I never see anyone sitting on, the Diefenbaker statue, and the War Memorial. Plenty of room, but very few people. Looking across the street at the courtyard of the Forest Centre, it appears much more welcoming - no straight lines there, but curved beds with a variety of plants, trees and shrubs, and attractive benches, garbage containers and a bicycle rack, all of similar design. And people sit on those benches - staff that work at the Forest Centre are often seen there taking a break and enjoying the sunshine.

Two of the most welcoming cities that I've visited in recent years had lots of benches - Montreal and Quebec City both encourage pedestrians, and part of that is providing places to sit and enjoy the view and watch people pass by. In neither city did I feel threatened by others who also used the benches - and it was a range of people - working people on a break, young families, less fortunate people who looked as though they were spending the day because they had nowhere else to go.

There are nice benches provided by the city, at the south end of Second Avenue, not exactly a park-like ambience, and I can't remember ever seeing anyone sit on those benches. Now that warmer weather is here (I hope), it would be nice if the square in front of City Hall looked welcoming, rather than the opposite, for anyone who wanted to take a break and enjoy the warm weather while it lasts.

"Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop." - Ovid